"To talk to someone who does not listen is enough to tense the devil."
Pearl Bailey, "Talking to Myself"
"My father always told me that there were two groups -- talkers and listeners. He said it was better to be in the second group. There was less competition."
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
As these two very different women would agree, listening is crucial. It is critical in everyday social interaction. And, in the ever-competitive business world, it can make the difference between success and failure.
Essayist Brenda Ueland described listening as a "magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.... When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.... When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other ... and it is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom... Well, it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way."
The process of listening begins with the need to devote a certain amount of focused time to someone else.
Sound obvious? Certainly, but it is also easier said than done. In preparation for a meeting with an associate, a client, a prospect or a partner, it means clearing your calendar. Holding your calls. Ignoring your e-mail. If you are in the middle of something important, write down where you are and what your next step should be. This will allow your mind to shift focus. If you responsibly set aside pressing matters, you can more easily avoid distractions and get down to the task at hand: namely, listening.
Formulate your own purpose for the meeting. What do you want to accomplish? How will you know you have succeeded? What will you see and hear? How will you feel at the end of your successful meeting? Write this down if you need to, and then mentally and physically set it aside.
What are your expectations, relative to the other person? Do you think you know what they want, what they will say? Are you willing to be wrong? Be smart: your predispositions color your perceptions.
If you are heavily biased, your mind will process what it hears so that your predisposition will appear to be correct. In other words, you will not accurately hear the person speaking. A bias generally carries a negative connotation, but a bias can just as easily be positive. There is a way to keep your perspective and listen carefully.
Jot down your biases and the point of view you are protecting. This will provide the guarantee that being open-minded will not cause you to lose an important position or point of view. You are not giving up your inclination, just setting it aside for a time so you will be able to truly listen.
You have now set aside all the potential mental distractions. Now you begin by genuinely greeting the person. This simple step takes the briefest moment, yet it helps to create the link between the two of you. You are saying, "This is important to me."
Signal this to the other person by saying, "My calendar is clear for the hour we set aside," and "Is there anything you need to take care of before we begin?" Be gracious, not abrupt or curt. Do this consistently and people will also learn to clear their mental preoccupations before they meet with you. This can have an extraordinary effect as it filters through the organization.
If you absolutely must take a particular call or interruption, briefly explain the situation: "Rebecca, the Ajax contract is just about to go through, and I'm expecting a confirmation call sometime during our meeting. I apologize in advance for the delay, but I'll keep it short."
How to Move Things Along
In your conversation, your only goals are to listen and, only once you've accomplished this, communicate back. You can help move things along by doing the following:
1) Say things like "I see." "Sure." "Okay, I follow you." "I get the picture." "I hear you."
2) Nod your head in agreement or understanding.
3) Generally speaking, maintain eye contact. This is giving confidence to the others you care what they say and want to hear more. Be aware some people will be limited if you attempt to "force" eye contact. People sometimes need to break eye contact to be able to think.
4) Ask short, clarifying questions and then say "Thanks. Please continue."
5) Occasionally test your grasp by briefly restating what has been said to you (without using this as an excuse to interrupt or go off track).
6) Pay attention to your body language. If you discover you are in a closed position there is a good chance you are closing off, that you are not listening carefully. If something pressing absolutely needs to be addressed, fine. If it can wait, make a note and then go back to listening.
The Most Important Rule
More than anything else, be quiet. Do not interrupt. When you butt in, the result is often a loss in the other's train of thought, or flow. Habitually cut people off and you risk these consequences:
* Valuable ideas do not get communicated well, or understood completely, resulting in uninformed decisions.
* You give the impression that you do not care what they have to say, or at least that your agenda is more important.
* If you have injected your own "helpful" ideas, you leave them with a sense that what they think is of little worth.
* They end up feeling frustrated and/or resentful.
* They are left with a "Why should I bother?" reaction that limits any future participation.
One of the best ways to learn about listening is to see examples of poor listening skills. Take a look around your office. Chances are you'll see examples of associates who fit the following categories:
* The Chatterbox, who can't bear to listen to anyone for more than a few seconds before chiming in with their own thoughts.
* The Star Trekker, who has the perpetually glazed over look of someone whose body is there but whose mind has been beamed to another place.
* The Appeaser, who shakes their head in agreement but hasn't heard a word said.
* The Wanderer, whose eyes are all over the room - to their wristwatch, their hands, out the window, to the nonringing telephone etc. - and gives every indication they would like the moment to end.
* The Nervous Nellie, who can't abide any pauses or silences and has every intention of keeping each meeting to the two minutes they've apparently allotted.
* The Baffler, who pretends to listen but then baffles everyone with the unrelated comments they make.
Managers who fit any of these categories foster long term consequences that spread throughout an organization.
Summarize and Agree
To test your listening skills, repeat out loud the essence of your conversation, using their words and phrases. Succinctly recreate their concept and structure. After you do that, give it back to them in your own words. Say, "Okay, I think I'm getting the picture. If I were to explain it in my own terms, I might say...."
If you have missed anything, this should give them a chance to refine your statement and improve upon your understanding. Lead the conversation by saying: "What do you see happening next?" or "What's your feeling for our next step?" or "Sounds like you have some thoughts on how to proceed?"
Becoming More Effective
When you listen effectively, you learn. A clear understanding leads to better decisions.
Over time you will discern the individual patterns and styles of the people with whom you meet. As you discover what works with different people, your effectiveness increases. You will also train, and create change, by example.
As important as listening is, we receive little training in the "how to" of listening. Be patient and persistent. And, like anything else, the more you practice the better you'll get.
Michael Kemp is a Business Technology Consultant at Flash Creative Management(www.flashcreative.com), a Hackensack, NJ-based consulting firm that specializes in helping companies map their business strategies and then build the appropriate processes and technologies to support them.