We’ve posted in the past about effective communication and about the damage that silence creates but we haven’t spent a lot of time on what can really make or break an organizations ability to communicate.
The ability to listen effectively.
One area in which I have a lot of experience with teaching people how to listen is when I have the opportunity to share our process with a married couple. Yes, we are primarily a business focused organization who’s very passionate about team optimization, but we also recognize that some of the most powerful teams around, are the two people who make up a marriage.
Marriages, like the various corporations out there, rely on healthy and constructive communication but they also live and die by their ability to listen.
My wife and I went through pre-maritial counseling when we got engaged in order to work out any communication issues we might run across during the first year or two of our marriage. When we walked out of our final session we were very confident that we were excellent communicators and that communication would not be a problem in our marriage. 6 months later we were sitting in our apt looking at each other and wondering what the words coming out of each others mouths meant.
We had learned to communicate, but we hadn’t learned to listen.
A few months later we discovered a great tool to help us listen to each other and to enhance our communication skills with one another. What’s interesting is that the tools we learned about in those early months in our marriage, was very similar to ones which were given to us by our marriage counselors.
Even then we didn’t realize it but we weren’t listening.
The methods we utilized doesn’t really matter here because there are many variations of it… (and even as a counselor, I can’t self diagnose my own problems)! What is important though is the concepts that it reinforces and strengths. Concepts which are key in marriages and any organization which wants to move forward.
Effective listening really consists of two major pieces.
- Active Engagement
- Active Listening
The idea here is that you are present and actively engaged with the person you are listening too. You are not looking over a laptop, you are not sending a text message or email, you are not staring off into the distance and occasionally saying “uh huh” or “gotcha” or any other “filler words”.
Active engagement means that you are looking at the person and not only listening to the words which come out of their mouth but also the unspoken words their body language is telling you.
Everyone talks with their body language and everyone’s body language is a bit different. It will take some time and skill to fully “hear” what someone might be saying with their body language so don’t rely on this alone to make progress in a conversation. Instead us it as a validating technique.
If you feel someone’s body language is telling you they are agitated, then ask yourself if their voice and topic of conversation coincide. As you continue to pay attention you’ll become more adept to reading those subtle signals which will help you to fully engage in listening and the conversation.
Active listening doesn’t mean just being present and focused on the person your are listening too. Active listening means showing the person you ARE listening and processing what they are saying. Most people think this means nodding your head, saying things like “gotcha”, “I hear you” and other short phrases, which make the person feel like they are being listened too.
In reality though these are all fillers and things we do consciously and subconsciously without really listening to the person. We may think this validates the persons conversation and feel like we are listening but in reality it probably makes them feel like we aren’t.
True active listening means that at any point you can regurgitate what the person has said to you, back to them in your own words. So if an employee came to me and said “I’m really upset that Susie burns popcorn every day at 11. It throws off my entire afternoon.”
Instead of saying “Gotcha, I’ll get on it” try saying “OK Jim. I understand Susie burning popcorn in the afternoon is disruptive, I’ll have a talk with her and see if we can’t resolve the issue.”
With active listening you are validating that the person WAS heard and understood WHAT they said. Two very important pieces in order to be effective in listening.
This is by no means all encompassing but hopefully it’s been enough to get you to be more aware of your listening skills and force you to be a bit more active in conversations and meetings. I’d love to hear from you on any ideas you have to be a better listener and therefore a better communicator.