Listening – the Under Used Communication Skill

Are you listening?  We have all asked or have been asked, this question at some point.  I am willing to wager that 9 times out of 10 we answer the question with an affirmative.  Often, we are not listening; we may be hearing but that is not the same as listening. There is a difference between hearing and listening.  For example, when engrossed in reading a great book or watching our favorite tv program and someone speaks to us expecting a response; we hear them, but we are not listening.  Likely they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher in the cartoon Peanuts, whaw, whaw, whaw, whaw.  We might be able to respond but it is likely we are not listening.

Listening is a communication skill.  In a recent survey of 2500 participants from the construction industry, communication was one of the top 3 gaps in leadership skills, particularly for newly promoted field leaders. The Project Management Institute (PMI) reports ineffective communication as the primary cause of project failure and over half of all funds for projects are put at risk due to poor communication. Learning to listen effectively, not just talk, is a communication skill that can be directly related to the bottom line in the construction industry.

Becoming a good listener is an imperative in improving communication skills; it is a difficult skill to master and takes practice. Author Steven Covey stated, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In this regard we are doing a disservice to the speaker as well as ourselves; we are not trying to understand their intent and we are not showing interest in what they are saying, essentially wasting their time and our own.

We can all strive to become more effective at listening, by implementing and practicing some simple steps. Get rid of distractions, both physically and mentally.  Put away your phone, stop typing that email or text, clear your mind.  If you are in the middle of something when someone approaches you for conversation, ask if you can have 5 or 10 minutes to complete your task.  Then give the speaker your full, undivided attention.

Use active listening techniques such as head nodding, making and maintaining eye contact, and leaning in toward the speaker, and do not interrupt.  Nothing says “I really don’t care what you are saying” like jumping in and talking over someone or interrupting.

Determine the speaker’s intent and what kind of response they may be expecting.  Are they just recapping something, sharing information, asking for counsel or advice, venting, seeking empathy or just an open ear so they feel heard? Responses should always be respectful, honest, and free of judgement or attack.  Ask questions; clarify, confirm, acknowledge, ask them to tell you more.  This indicates that you are receptive, open and listening with intent.  Paraphrase what they are saying in your own words, with attention to how they may be feeling, their intentions, or needs.

Try these simple steps the next time someone speaks to you, approaches with an idea, question, concern, or is trying to provide feedback; and ask others for their attention when you are speaking to them.  It may seem like an inconvenience, or that you are a great multi-tasker, but these simple steps can make a true difference in communication and understanding.

Listening is a communication skill worth spending time to develop and will improve your relationships both personally and professionally.  It is about connecting with others, building rapport, showing empathy, being supportive, being a coach, mentor, or advisor.  Be interested!  When you are, others won’t need to ask if you are listening, they will feel it.