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Are You Listening to Me? Or Should I Shout Louder?

By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

As I continue to stroll through the later chapters of my life, I spend a certain amount of my time listening to radio shows or watching television shows that purport to discuss a variety of subjects: economics, politics, sports, business, geopolitics, etc. Over time, I have solidified a concern that has developed in recent years. Overall, as a people, we don’t listen very well…and that includes me. Listening—truly listening—is important in order to understand the point of view of another person. You cannot be listening if, while the other person is speaking, you are formulating your response or attempting to speak over them.

I realize that I cannot change the habits of others, but I can work on my own. Listed below are some thoughts on how I might improve my own listening habits. If any of these are helpful to you, I encourage you to adapt them to your style and to apply them to your own behaviors.

  • I will let others complete their sentences and thoughts. I will not interrupt. I will not quickly respond to the question of another by cutting them off in half-sentence. I will not respond sharply in a manner that says “I am not really interested in your question. Let’s move on to the next item of importance to me”. Instead, I will thoughtfully and completely listen to their point of view. Alfred Brendel, Austrian pianist, poet and author, is quoted to have said: “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’’. I will do my best to remember those words.
  • Many of our communications today are done via email, texting and other social media. This reduces the amount of time we devote to speaking to each other which means we do not have opportunities to exercise good listening skills as often. These tools often do not provide context, which is so important to understanding the point of view of another. So, I will strive to more frequently communicate person-to-person, or face-to-face, in order to improve clarification of communication and practice my listening skills.
  • I will recognize that body language is a key element of communication. I will engage in body language that tells the other person that I am actively listening and engaged in the conversation. I will not slouch, or slump, or stand in a manner that telegraphs that what the other person says is not really that important to me. Similarly, I will not engage in facial expressions, such as “eye-rolling”, which implies that I do not believe what they are saying.
  • I will remember that my eyes are an important part of any conversation. How I use them will also signal my level of interest and attention. I will focus on the person who is speaking. I will not look around the room, or at the landscape out the window or sweep the floor with my eyes. I will not look at their feet or their hands; I will look at them.
  • In addition to my body language and eye movement, I will remember that there are other non-verbal habits that can indicate whether I am really listening and paying attention to the other person. For example, I will not squirm around in my chair as though I am uncomfortable with what is being said. I will also control the volume and speed of my voice so as not to create the impression that I intend to “bowl over” the other.
  • In addition to my own habits, I will pay attention to those which are exhibited by the other person. I will be alert to recognize if I am making the other person feel uncomfortable; I will watch for signals that they might consider the conversation to be over.
  • I will practice other techniques that I have learned over the years such as repeating, reflecting or reframing. Any one of these can be used to help emphasize to the other speaker that I understand the points that they are trying to present.
  • I will minimize distractions and interruptions during the conversation. If one occurs, I will reiterate the most recent part of the discussion to make sure nothing has been lost. While distractions or interruptions occur in face-to-face conversations, they often come up more frequently in telephone conversations. I will conduct my telephone conversations without engaging in other tasks, such as email, texting, etc. If a distraction or interruption occurs that is so great it completely disrupts the conversation, I will ask the other person if we can delay the discussion until a time when we can have a more meaningful exchange.
  • I will not “multi-task” during any conversation.
  • In all my conversations, I will try to remember the words of Stephen Covey from his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”
  • I will use good questioning skills in my conversations with others. I will not interrogate the participant, but will use my questions to stimulate our thoughts, as well as to clarify points which are presented. I will remember that good questioning includes the appropriate use of open-ended questions (“What will you do with this information?”) and closed-ended questions (“Do you have all of the information you need to make your decision?”).
  • If it is important to the conversation to take notes, I will tell the other person that I plan to do so. While taking notes, I will be careful that I do not reflect inappropriate non-verbals during the note-taking process.
  • And as always, I will strive to “Think Straight. Talk Straight.” in all of my conversations.

I hope these thoughts are useful to you in your communications. I believe if I practice them regularly that I will be a better listener, a better communicator, a better person. I hope you will benefit from them. You may also find that as you become a better listener to others, they, in turn, will be a better listener to you.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts. Write me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com and share your thoughts. Good luck and good listening!

P.S.--For those of you who have enjoyed my writing over the past several years, you can enjoy it again in my book coming out later this year. More to come on that in the future.