Are you listening to me?

Years ago, a great teacher told a class I attended that proactive listening is the path to great success. After a couple recent interactions I’m thinking this lesson needs to be restated for today. Right now, with so many folks paying more attention to their smartphones than they are to real listening, we experience confusion, misunderstandings, and costly assumptions almost daily. Some friends and I were discussing this recently and we decided that proactive listening should be part of every company’s training program.

People spend from 70–80% of their day engaged in some form of communication, with at least half of that time devoted to listening. Research tells us that the average person hears between 20,000 and 30,000 words within 24 hours, and most of us only remember about 25% of what we hear.

I recently read that men use only half of their brain to listen, while women listen with both lobes. The article suggested that if women feel like their spouse or significant other isn’t hearing what they’re saying, this might be the reason. Well, that should at least make some women feel a little better, learning that it’s a “man thing.”

Especially in business, we should all work on listening proactively. Active listening helps build trust. Customers and clients want to feel heard. One of my business friends said she recently had what she calls the worst haircut ever experience due to a “listening misunderstanding.” Another colleague had to make two trips for a pick-up order because the person taking the phone order wrote it down wrong. Whether it’s a bank, a big-box store, a fast food drive-up window, a hair salon, or anywhere else you spend money, you want to feel like you’re being heard and that you will get what you came for.

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One of the challenges to real listening is that we think faster than we talk. We may be in the habit of thinking of a response to what’s being said before the speaker has even finished talking, or we may be distracted by outside influences. An executive coach friend gave the following suggestions:

  • Never interrupt. Allow the customer/client to say his or her needs without feeling rushed. Interrupting makes them feel like you only want to get your information across and/or that you already “assume” what the person is going to say, or that you don’t remember that communication is collaboration.
  • Allow the person to feel heard by rephrasing their comments or questions in your own words to clarify understanding. Asking questions to clarify shows concern and interest.
  • Listen for ways to provide an even better outcome than expected.
  • Listen for what’s not being said. If there are conflicting messages, ask more questions.
  • Resist temptation to challenge what is being said. If you disagree with what is being said, wait, think, and wait again, until you can respond in a proactive rather that reactive manner.
  • Listen with intention so there is no misinterpreting the message.

The executive coach says that listening is a learned and practiced skill. It can open new doors in every area of our lives. She suggests that sharpening one’s listening skills can dramatically improve relationships with others.

We don’t always learn from hearing our own selves talk. When we are proactive listeners we give the gift of our attention. Others appreciate this and will reciprocate. What a great impact this can make on relationships!

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