Good Things Happen When You Know How to Listen

Good Things Happen When You Know How to ListenMaybe because we’ve been told to listen since we were children, studies show most of us think we do it well — yet actually don’t. In fact, research shows that the average person only listens with about 25% efficiency. That’s not something you would accept in any other business metric and poor listening skills can also decrease performance.

Really knowing how to listen can equip you with greater insights from customers, richer input from team members and an increased ability to motivate others. The magic has a lot to do with how effective listening makes others feel; better understood, more respected, more supported, less defensive and more cooperative.

The pitfalls

Poor listening is a bit like a communications highway littered with potholes. If you try to speed down it, things will get bumpy and you can get thrown off course and have to backtrack.

If customers and clients do not feel heard, you will miss opportunities to address issues or learn about additional needs. Poor listening also impacts your ability to network and grow important connections when you do most of the talking and less information gathering and learning. Similarly, relationships with employees can decline and team members grow resentful if they feel you lack interest in, and understanding of, their challenges and contributions.

On the other hand, becoming a good listener can drive deeper understanding of goals and opportunities, reduced conflict by understanding other viewpoints, better relationships and a stronger ability to motivate others when you know what they value most.

It’s something you do

You’re likely familiar with the term active listening which was first introduced in the 1950s by two psychologists who applied the techniques to helping people make important changes.  The term itself reveals a lot about how we traditionally think of listening; like something that just happens without effort. In contrast, we don’t use terms like active accounting or active speaking. We know they require skill and effort and listening is no different.

Active listening is typically understood to include three elements:

  • Displaying nonverbal involvement through body language.
  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s message without judgment.
  • And asking questions that encourage elaboration.

You can put those elements into practice like this:

  • Demonstrate your interest in the speaker physically with eye contact, nodding, facing the person and using an open and relaxed posture. On the phone, this can be achieved with tone of voice and verbal acknowledgements. Email is trickier but might include responding in a timely manner and giving the message your full attention so that you address issues fully and “hear” any need for more personal outreach.
  • Paraphrase so the other person knows you understand. This idea sometimes feels awkward to people at first but it works. When you can restate the basics of what someone else has said in your own words, it tests your comprehension and encourages them to keep sharing because they see you working to understand.

Questions also come in handy here. A leadership development consulting firm analyzed 3,400 participants in a coaching training program to learn what those ranked in the top five percent for effective listening did differently from those rated less well. People perceived the best listeners as those who periodically asked questions that furthered discovery and insight.

Imagine listening to a potential customer explaining a problem and you ask a follow-up question that shows you really get what they’re saying. They will be more likely to continue to engage and provide you with even more helpful information that could lead to a sale.

  • Encourage and empathize. Especially when a speaker shares difficult feelings such as frustration, anger or disappointment, the best listeners strive to understand the why and don’t rush in with a solution before the person has been fully heard.

This can require some self-control if a customer has a complaint and you want to fix it immediately. Or a team member is struggling or even making excuses and you want to jump in with the perfect solution. There is a time for problem-solving but listening first, without interrupting, will help you get the full story and increase the likelihood the speaker will feel understood and respected.

Are you listening?

When you consider what it takes to be an effective listener, and the impact it can have on your ability to lead, it’s worth reconsidering whether this is a skill you have mastered or, like most people, if it’s one to develop further. With its power to decrease miscommunication, drive richer insights, convey respect and enhance problem-solving, effective listening is a sound business investment. As an added benefit, the same skills apply in our personal lives too.