"We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." - Epictetus

Listening is the true key to all effective communication and one of our core leadership attributes. We define listening as focusing on the opinions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, and objections of others when expressed, not cutting others off or arguing their inputs, and allowing others to feel heard. It is a form of respect for another person and requires focused effort – not only paying attention to the words that are being said, but also to the tone of voice, body language if in person, and sometimes “hearing” what is not said.

Listening well has many positive effects on interpersonal relationships, including client relationships. Sincerely listening to one another in the workplace leads to increased sharing among team members and therefore better productivity, morale, teamwork, and innovation. When you lack this important skill, messages can easily be misunderstood and the sender of the message can become frustrated or irritated at your apparent lack of concern for their message (and sometimes them), causing a complete communication breakdown and cutting off further attempts to share.

How are you doing in this area with your partners, staff, family, and friends?

Consider the following ideas to help you improve your listening skills both inside and outside the office:

Listen more than you talk. This is the cornerstone of truly listening and should go without saying. Always allow the speaker to finish their thoughts without interrupting, pay attention to tone of voice, and watch and/or listen for verbal and nonverbal cues so you can respond appropriately. Many times we think finishing someone’s sentences is the ultimate bonding experience – as if we are of one mind. However, effective listening means allowing others to finish their own thoughts versus putting words in their mouths. They may have a different message than we imagine and deserve to voice them in the way that is true for them.

Practice active listening. Sometimes listening requires repeating or summarizing comments to ensure your understanding. This is called “active listening.” While being careful not to interrupt, it’s okay to ask relevant, clarifying questions to be sure you understand the message before the speaker gets too far and you’ve lost their intent.

Convey your sincere interest. When you’re really listening, you can’t just go through the motions! If you are in a face-to-face conversation, show appropriate nonverbal responses such as nodding, and facial expressions like smiling, and maintain good eye contact with the speaker to demonstrate your interest and encourage them to keep talking. If you’re on the phone, appropriately-placed “mm-hmms” and “I understands” won’t disrupt the speaker but will help them know you are still there and are listening intently. Watch the tone and volume of any emotions or responses you supply to keep the focus on what the speaker is trying to convey.

Exhibit patience and be sure to appear un-hurried during the conversation. This includes not finger tapping, fidgeting, clock watching, sighing, or other “I’m not listening” giveaways.

Remove distractions. Give your full attention to the speaker and don’t allow yourself to be preoccupied with other things such as e-mail, other individuals, your phone, etc. This is especially important to consider for phone conversations because distractions are more easily hidden so you may not feel as “guilty” about multi-tasking. But, by paying attention to things other than the speaker, you could miss the bulk of their message and would most certainly miss any nonverbal cues or things left un-said.

If you are unable to fully focus on the conversation, show respect by scheduling a more appropriate time for the meeting.

Be non-judgmental and empathetic. Listen to the entire communication before even thinking about your response (don’t let your mind wander!) and consider whether you have any personal biases that may impact your ability to have an open mind. Try to ignore mannerisms, grammar, and the style in which the message is delivered and focus on the message itself.

Also, make an effort to place yourself in the speaker’s position and work to understand their concerns and feelings. If the speaker says something that you disagree with, wait and construct a response that shares your views but keep an open mind to their opinions. While some conversations will be emotionally charged or confrontational simply based on the topic, aim to keep emotion muted so that the meaning of the dialogue isn’t missed.

Listening effectively involves linking together pieces of information – words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other verbal and nonverbal cues – to truly understand others’ ideas and thoughts. By practicing these tips and applying focus to your listening efforts, you can improve this vital people skill and your overall communication abilities.

How do you practice proper listening skills? What do others do to make you feel truly heard? Please share your tips and ideas with us!

Warm regards,

Krista Remer