When I say “your most important communication skill,” you might think: public speaking, handling questions, or reading people.
That’s because we normally think of communication as outgoing. We think that if we’re transmitting we must be communicating.
That leads to people speaking at one another instead of really listening. It’s become the hallmark of our current social and political environment that people spend a lot more time shouting at one another than listening.
It turns out that two monologues, however loud and impassioned, do not equal a dialogue.
Our ability to listen has been further eroded by our inability to pay attention. While I love Apple products and own many, the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone last month was bittersweet. Our phones have become a total distraction, limiting our ability to be present with one another.
In teaching listening skills in my workshops, I will give very specific, and what I think are clear, directions on a great listening exercise. Ironically, or tellingly, the exercise breaks down because people hear and interpret the instructions differently. That gives us a laugh — and a lesson.
Many of my clients work with teams around the world. I say if we are face-to-face in the same room and can’t get it right, imagine the role of language, culture, and distance in breaking down your communication.
Our ability to listen and communicate is further complicated by gender, generations, and other factors. (For some fun and insight this morning, watch the video at the end of this post, “It’s Not About the Nail” where a man and woman try to communicate.)
Seek to Understand
Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, notes that a certain type of listening is a fundamental one of the seven habits, “Seek to Understand.”
Covey’s continuum of listening has five levels, from worst to best: 1. Ignoring, 2. Pretend listening (patronizing), 3. Selective listening, 4. Attentive listening, 5. Empathic listening.
When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of "active" listening or "reflective" listening, which basically involve mimicking what another person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and relationships, and often insults those "listened" to...
When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with the intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It's an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.
To help with your listening skills, here are some tips from The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael P. Nichols, PhD, which I’m currently reading and highly recommend:
Guidelines for Good Listening
Concentrate on the person speaking.
- Set aside distractions.
- Suspend your agenda.
- Interrupt as little as possible. If you interrupt, it should be to encourage the speaker to say more.
Try to grasp what the speaker is trying to express.
- Don’t react to just the words––listen for the underlying ideas and feelings.
- Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
- Try to understand what the other person is getting at.
Let the speaker know that you understand.
- Use silence, reassuring comments, paraphrasing.
- Offer empathic comments.
- Make opening-up statements (tell me more, what else) versus closing-off statements (I get it; the same thing happened to me).
These are great tips for you to use in improving your listening skills. I could offer you many more that I use in my communication coaching and training, but the most important place to start, as with most change, is in your awareness.
Start checking yourself. When it’s time to listen to someone at work or at home, are you really there? Are you thinking about something else? Are you waiting for your turn to speak? Are you listening for keywords that you can use to pivot to your ideas?
Are you present, fully present, and really listening to someone who matters to you?
Listening makes or breaks relationships. It’s that powerful. That’s why it can be your most important communication skill.