This past year has managed to shine a light on our relationships, especially those at work. The Covid pandemic has had the potential to both bring us together and drive us apart.
How well we have managed our work relationships is often viewed as how well we are heard and understood. The challenge is that the ability to listen well is usually not practiced in the best of times and it can totally fall by the wayside when we are under stress and our lives are compounded by uncertainty and major challenges. When we are stressed we actually become more rigid, not more flexible or creative. We tend to retreat into ourselves and become easily distracted. We might even get overly critical or analytical in an attempt to control conversations when everything else in life seems so uncontrollable.
Sadly, we end up feeling disconnected and even aggravated at the time we need each other the most. And for better or worse, virtual platforms such as Zoom, GoogleMeet, FaceTime, and WebEx (in addition to a ‘plain old’ phone conversation) now provides us with a captive audience and the singular chance to really listen to others.
Not Just Quiet
Listening in NOT just being quiet and letting someone else talk. The ability to listen well is critical to interpersonal success but it is often one of our weakest professional skills. We are groomed, trained, and taught how to speak and make presentations. Applause usually goes to the person who has the spotlight – the one who makes the most persuasive argument, gets the most air-time, or makes the splashiest point gets attention. We are rarely asked to focus our efforts on listening. Very little attention is given to the person who exhibits multi-faceted listening skills.
Ironically, poor listening skills are a common cause of miscommunication, misunderstanding, low productivity and employee disengagement. I’ve done hundreds of team problem-solving simulations where the person with the critical piece of information or the correct answer that would help resolve the problem the team was trying to solve was not listened to. Not listening results in a one-hour meeting taking two hours! When I’ve asked what the outcomes of a meeting are – sadly, few people could identify them. People weren’t listening; they were simply waiting for the speaker to stop talking.
What Is Needed
Most of us can identify what makes for a poor listener. It’s the person who is looking at their phone and not at us when we talk. It’s the person who interrupts. It’s the person who is dismissive, patronizing, or challenging. But simply not doing those things doesn’t make you a good listener. Listening is a very complex set of skills. And luckily, those willing, can learn them.
First and foremost, you have to want to listen. That means that you have genuine respect for the person talking.
You also have to pay close attention to what the other person is saying. People don’t always say exactly what they mean, so the listener may have to determine the speaker’s intention. It’s helpful not to always take things at their literal meaning. And, there may be non-verbal signals like eye-contact, head nodding, and facial expressions (all the more challenging to decipher with Zoom).
Asking questions can help further determine a speaker’s intent and allows listeners to get further clarification. This can prevent the risks that flow from miscommunication and unchallenged errors. Effective listeners use paraphrase and summary to link and connect what people are saying in meetings.
Make It a Priority
When we are stressed and juggling multiple priorities, it can be a challenge to remember to listen well. It’s tempting to jump in with your opinion, rush people to an answer, assume you know what someone is going to say, or misunderstand someone’s meaning. In a virtual platform, trust and rapport are harder to establish and maintain. We can all get better at listening with focus and practice.
While most of us have too much to do to conduct a post-conversation quiz, it’s often beneficial for there to be a review and summary of key take-aways, action items, deadlines, and learnings.
To Be a Better Listener:
– Get rid of potential distractions: phone, emails screen, window
– Don’t try to ‘multi-task.’
– Be fully present. Instead of letting your mind wander, give the conversation your full attention.
– Don’t interrupt. Let the speaker finish. Focus on what they are saying, not on what you’d like to say when they are finished speaking. .
– Listen with your eyes and pay attention to the non-verbal aspects of the conversation, such as gestures and facial expressions.
– Use small signals and signs such as nods, smiles and ‘mm’ or ‘yeah’ to show your attention.
– Ask questions to clarify what has been said. Check you have fully understood both the speaker’s meaning and their intention or purpose.
– Demonstrate you have understood the speaker’s feelings about the topic and acknowledge that through skillful paraphrasing, using your own words.
– Leave time to summarize, review and list key take-aways from a conversation before moving on.
When someone has their microphone on mute in a virtual meeting, it’s annoying because you are missing their message. That’s when you can’t listen. When you don’t listen, you don’t just miss out on the message – you send one of your own – of disrespect.
Perk up your ears! Listening is easy to do and improves how you are seen.