Better Listening for a Better Workplace

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Work days are longer, the pace of life is faster, and there's an endless contest for our attention. In an environment full of deadlines, cell phones, e-mail and other distractions, focusing long enough to listen to another human being can be a challenge. But in a tight labor market, you can't afford to alienate the people you spent so much time and money to hire. Employees are more willing to share their ideas if they know you're really listening. Being a good listener not only helps boost morale but also helps you learn more about what motivates your staff and how you can get the best work from them. Active listening prevents miscommunication, improves customer service and increases your effectiveness as a leader. "Bosses, in particular, find power in effective listening," says Jamie Martindale, a psychology professor with the ITT Tech Institute in Indianapolis. "You don't need to give in as much on projects, parameters, deadlines and so forth when employees feel you understand them." The secret lies in using the Chinese characters that make up the verb "to listen": ears, eyes, undivided attention and heart. In this Quick-Read you will find:
  • A method to measure your skills.
  • Best listening practices.
  • Exercises to strengthen your skills.
SOLUTION [top] Experts claim we spend 90% of our day communicating, but we devote only 45% of that time to listening. Surveys reveal 85% of Americans rate themselves as average or below in listening ability. Toastmasters International asserts that retention level drops significantly when you fail to listen. What can you do to increase your listening skills?
  • Concentrate. As hard as it may be to stop for a minute when you're busy, give the speaker your undivided attention. Hearing something right once takes less time than having the information repeated. Avoid getting distracted or letting your mind wander.
  • Don't interrupt. If necessary, jot down a quick point or two to mention when it's your turn to speak, but wait until the other person is finished before jumping in.
  • Keep an open mind. Don't rush to judge the statements or the speaker before you hear everything.
  • Use body language. Make eye contact with the other person, lean in a little, nod to show understanding — your nonverbal cues say a lot.
  • Rephrase and repeat what was said. When you've heard what your employee has to say, reflect the information and tie it to an emotion, such as "Sounds like you're angry about this situation." However, make sure you don't just dress up an opinion or judgment with the word feel. "I feel like you're overdramatizing this issue" falls flat.
As with other communication skills, like public speaking and negotiation, experts encourage you to practice listening habits in the workplace with real-life situations from the get-go. REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top] Indiana's Chief Deputy Building Commissioner Bill Franklin has a reputation for being an excellent listener. When the writer for this article contacted the building commissioner's department, she didn't have a contact name to request, only the description "a manager who implemented better listening skills." The receptionist immediately said, "You must mean Bill Franklin. He's the best listener I've ever worked with." Franklin started developing his listening skills when a manager from the elevator and amusement safety division came to his office at wit's end. He requested Franklin to facilitate a team within his division because "they just don't listen to me." To do this, Franklin decided to become a better listener himself. So he attended an eight-hour training course that emphasized reflective listening, and returned to his offices to set an example. The results show on several fronts. One noteworthy example: In 1999 after four years of absorbing an active listening culture, a division team was given 40 days to conduct a plan review. The employees accomplished the task in seven days. From Franklin's point of view, understanding employees' latent feelings means his staff now spends extra time working to understand the core issues before striving to solve problems. Once they are able to hear each other's positions, they can better formulate solutions that meet the needs of the team. DO IT [top]
  1. Consider your listening skills. If you answer yes to the following criteria, you need to polish this art: Do you talk more than the people around you? Do you find yourself interrupting others to get your point across? Do you often forget things people tell you?
  2. Pick up a tape or attend a class on active or emphatic listening. Becoming aware of bad listening habits allows you to focus on ways to tackle this deficit.
  3. Keep a running list of feeling words in your planner or a small notebook to expand your reflective listening vocabulary. Suggestions: festive, inspired, spirited, engrossed, brave, bold, calm, vacant, mournful, hollow, crushed, restless, suspicious, perplexed, jealous, reassured.
  4. Practice reflecting employees' emotions using the phrase "It seems that you feel _____ because ________."
  5. Arrange for a role-playing opportunity with two trusted friends. Rotate positions so that each of you acts out the speaker, listener and evaluator roles. Rate each other on a scale of one to five for emphatic responses to topics such as favorite vacations, workplace frustrations and family expectations.
  6. Actively seek feedback from your peers on your progress.
RESOURCES [top] Books Effective Listening Skills by Art James and Dennis Kratz (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1995). Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes by Erik J. Van Slyke (AMACOM, 1999). Internet Sites www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/activel.htm provides links to explore active listening in depth. Toastmasters International Ivy Sea Online Leadership & Communication Center Audio-Visuals CareerTrack sells listening skills training programs in both audio and video form, 800-780-7916   Article Contributors Writer: Julie Sturgeon
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