Listening – An Overlooked Business Strategy

Listening is something most of us don’t do very well. In this multitasking world, we answer our e-mail while we attend a teleconference or even when we talk with colleagues on the phone (and by the way, those colleagues can hear the tap-tap-tap of the keys, and they know we’re no longer interested in what they have to say).

We slap on earphones to drown out the cacophony that’s part of life in a cubicle farm. We rush to poorly planned meetings where there may be lots of discussion about nothing. Hurried, stressed, and often overworked, it’s no wonder we’re not very attentive to what others are saying. Experts tell us we listen only about fifty percent of the time. That is, we process about half of what people say to us.

But listening with intention pays big dividends in the workplace. The first, of course, is that courtesy breeds courtesy. If you are polite to your co-workers, making eye contact with them as they speak, checking to make sure you understood what they say, and giving some visual cues that show you’re paying attention, you gain a reputation as someone who is interested in other people’s opinions and viewpoints.

That reputation will build relationships. Healthy relationships result in a greater flow of useful information–and good information is the key to advancement. If you listen twice as much as you talk (that is, keep your ears open and your mouth shut), you’ll probably move up the organization faster than the colleague who reverses the ratio.

In addition, when you really listen, you’ll make fewer mistakes. You’re less likely to hear fifty when the customer said fifteen or to order the product in blue when the client wanted it in green. You’ll know that the pitch meeting is Thursday, not Tuesday. You won’t show up for the meeting with your boss at 2 p.m. when it was scheduled for 1 p.m. You’ll save yourself-and your company-time and money by getting things right the first time. And since time and money are the two resources business values most, you’ll have produced measurable results.

Really listening is hard work, but here are some tips to polish your skills:

Shut out distractions. While you are engaged in an important conversation with a colleague or a customer, let the phone go to voice mail and your computer to screen saver. Face the person you’re talking with. By signaling your intention to concentrate on him or her, you make your conversational partner feel valued.

Be aware of your body language. Lean forward a bit and make appropriate eye contact to show that you’re interested in what the other person is saying.

Watch the other person’s body language, too. Note facial expressions and gestures. Is he or she looking everywhere but at you, blinking rapidly, or tapping a foot impatiently? These may be hints that the other person is ashamed, anxious, or irritated, and the nonverbal cues help you understand the underlying messages as well as what’s being conveyed in words.

Stay in the moment. Try to keep your mind from wandering. This can be difficult, but being fully present when talking with another person is powerful-and it’s a very efficient use of time as well.

Detach gracefully. If you must cut a conversation short to go to a meeting, return to work on a report, or get busy on another task, do it gently. “Bob, I’m really interested in what you’re saying, but Jack needs this report in two hours. Could we reconvene after that? I’d really like to finish this discussion. Do you have time after three?” That’s much more effective than looking distracted or glancing repeatedly at your watch.

Try listening effectively for six months and watch your office life improve.

Copyright 2008