You've been to the meetings. You've improved your presentation skills. You're the best leader you can be. Or are you? Public speaking is vital to good leadership. Yet there are two sides to the communication coin. Flip the coin over and ask yourself are you a good listener? Most of us are not.
Madelyn Burley-Allen, author of Listening, the Forgotten Skill, states that 70 percent of our waking hours are spent in verbal communication. Forty percent of this time is supposedly engaged in listening, but that's not really the case. The Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication reports that we only retain about half of what we've immediately heard and in 48 hours that number drops to 25 percent. In other words, the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" applies.
Listening is an essential skill for leaders. However, while many of us have spent years learning to read, write and speak, few among us have had any training in listening. Yet, bad listeners that we are, it is ironic to note that humans have a crucial need to be heard.
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that next to physical survival, a human's greatest need is psychological survival; to be understood, affirmed, validated and appreciated. In other words, humans need to be heard.
It isn't always easy. We live in a busy world, and many of us spend our days in a time crunch. Our full agendas offer little room for those who seek our attention. Yet being an attentive listener is essential to being a good leader, good person, and even a good spouse and parent.
Experts agree that when we take the time to listen we improve relationships, promote an atmosphere of cooperation, encourage creative thinking and save money by avoiding costly errors caused by miscommunication. More importantly, we earn respect from those around us.
In her book, Burley-Allen cites a study conducted at Loyola University where researchers found listening to be the single most important attribute of an effective manager. Nothing else mattered as much to employees as being heard. In addition, she writes that attentive listening reduces stress, builds team work, increases trust, and encourages the sharing of thoughts and ideas. The return for being a good listener is well worth what leaders put into it.
Unfortunately, attentive listening doesn't come naturally for most of us. In his book, Covey notes that that when someone speaks, our initial reaction is to evaluate, probe, advise and interpret. We rush to scrutinize and then fix the problem - the opposite of what we should do.
Instead, when someone wants to talk, we should focus our attention solely on what the speaker is saying. Burley-Allen, Covey and others stress the importance of listening with empathy. Covey calls it "empathic listening" and defines it as "listening with the intent to understand." He believes it to be crucial to the fifth of his seven habits, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
Each of us naturally views the world through unique eyes, and this varies our perceptions of events and circumstances. Yet, there is usually no single right or wrong way to perceive a situation. Covey believes break-downs in communication happen because people interpret events differently. In order to build deep, authentic relationships, we must be able to see the world through the eyes of others. We must listen empathically.
To do this, we must practice listening with the goal of helping. We must harbor no judgment, no criticism and no intent to influence the speaker. The objective is to understand how and why the other person feels the way she does, and to convey this understanding.
Covey lists four stages for empathic listening:
For even as we try, there are barriers that hamper our ability to listen well. Boredom, external distractions and a wandering mind lead us astray. With those speakers we know well, our personal judgments can interfere. Think back to some of the conversations you've had lately: a client complains of bad service, but the person helping him was one of your best employees; a co-worker complains about her boss, but you really like the guy; your son complains that his curfew is unfair, but you have no plans to change it. How did you respond? Did you analyze the situation and give advice? Were you distracted? Did you really try to place yourself in the speakers' shoes?
Sometimes, we don't want to hear what is being said to us. Hurt or angry, we rush to defend ourselves. Choosing to be annoyed instead of understanding the other person's view will only damage your relationship and hinder the situation. Make the bigger choice to forgive the offense (and the offender) and move forward with the speaker to resolve the problem. Covey states that disagreements are rarely about what is being discussed; if you can listen empathically, you'll sooner grasp the root of the problem and step closer to its solution.
Listening must come from the heart. If you are not sincere, it will show. Regardless of what you say, your nonverbal gestures will expose your true feelings. When this happens, make it a point to remain focused on what the speaker is saying by actively practicing the stages of empathic listening. And if you haven't been forthright in the past, Covey recommends you apologize to regain trust. If your apology is sincere, it will reach the speaker's heart.
The art of listening lies in understanding. To be an effective employee, leader, spouse or play any other role in a community, we must care not only about what those around us have to say, but also how they feel.
The world is a busy place, and time for others will never just present itself. Giving your full attention takes patience and practice. Just remember that everyone in your life deserves this. So, listen well when they speak. It will make you an even better leader than you already are.