I am often asked to identify the single most prevalent trait that I observe in influential people. My answer is simple - they listen. Most of us spend a great deal of our waking hours listening. We listen in meetings, on telephone calls, in one-to-one conversations, at lunch - to our boss, our colleagues, our employees, our partners, our children, our parents, our friends, and often to total strangers. Phew! That's a lot of listening.
You'd think that with all the practice we get and with virtually constant reinforcement of the importance of listening, we'd all be pretty good at it. But you know what? Most of us aren't. We are simply not very good listeners much of the time. It's not because we are lazy, or stupid, or uncommitted, or anything like that. We have trouble listening because listening is not simple. Contrary to what we might have been led to believe, listening is an incredibly complex skill to master.
The gain, however, justifies the pain. People who listen effectively are perceived as more helpful, more "in tune", and tend to exert more influence over others than those who are less effective listeners. Whether you are an executive, manager or line employee, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to improve your listening skills.
So, what is effective listening? We often confuse hearing with listening but hearing is biological, listening is behavioural. Listening is something we choose to do, and as such, we need to build skills and experience to be effective at it.
There are two major components to effective listening so there are two sets of skills that must be developed.
The first component is your ability to focus your attention on the words, body language, and meaning of the speaker. If you are unable to focus your attention on these in a sustained manner, you will have difficulty understanding what the speaker is attempting to express.
You cannot be an attentive listener if:
Your attention drifts to other things running around in your head while another person is speaking.
You judge the speaker while he/she is speaking. Thinking about how you could say it better, the colour of the person's tie, or how wrong the speaker is will certainly limit your ability to understand the speaker from the speaker's position.
You spend most of the conversational time eagerly waiting for your turn to talk.
You mentally rehearse your response while the other person is speaking.
You undertake some other activity while the other person is speaking - checking the time, answering the phone, taking extensive notes.
So, in other words, effective listening requires you to focus your attention, and to acquire the discipline and skill to do this almost automatically. It simply does not come naturally.
The second component of effective listening relates to your ability to communicate your understanding of what the speaker is saying and meaning. Even if you manage to focus your attention on a speaker, if you cannot communicate this to the speaker, you will be unlikely to reap all the potential benefits of effective listening.
Two of the most common skills to develop in this component are empathetic listening (expressing your understanding of the feelings of the speaker), and reflective listening, or paraphrasing (expressing your understanding of the details of the speaker's talk).
Comparatively, it is much easier to develop paraphrasing and empathetic listening verbal skills than it is to acquire the self-discipline of attention focusing. And to establish an ongoing communicative relationship with another person is an even greater challenge.
It involves not just listening to what that person says, but getting a sense of who they are, how they view life, what they want to accomplish, what concerns they have, what they are afraid of, how they're feeling, what they want from you, and more.
It even involves "listening" to what people aren't directly saying, or what they might be too reluctant to say, or what they definitely don't want you to do in response to their communication.
Being a great listener can help win you friends, improve your relationships, boost your business profits, or advance your career. It can make people feel so good about being with you that they will literally follow you anywhere.
Sounds powerful? Listen up out there (please), it really is!
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