Chuck Lauer: The Gentle Art of Listening

Listening is one of the most powerful communication skills around, but in this era of multi-tasking, many people forget how important it is. No one is immune to talking too much. It's only natural to want to explain your thoughts and opinions. But it's also important to hold back and listen.

When you don't truly listen, you can get out of touch with what is going on around you. People who have forgotten how to listen can become isolated and make the wrong decisions for their organization.

Listening now viewed as important

Good listening has come to be seen as an important workplace skill. Many professions now place great emphasis on listening skills, but it took a while for this to happen.

In the sales profession, where I started, listening intently to customers wasn't even talked about until the early 1970s. You'd think listening skills would be a no-brainer for sales, but a sales person used to be judged by how they talked rather than how they listened.

In medicine, making accurate diagnoses is based on what patients are telling you. And yet listening wasn't taught in many medical schools until fairly recently. Now medical educators across the country place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of listening to patients as well as to fellow professionals. Listening carefully to what another caregiver is telling you during a handoff is now considered a key patient safety measure.    

How to listen effectively

Some people think good listening is a passive skill, but it actually takes some effort. While the normal speaking rate is about 125 to 150 words a minute, we as listeners process about 500 words a minute, leaving a lot of time for the mind to wander.

Therefore, you need to make a point of listening. Here are a few pointers on developing good listening skills.

  • Dedicate all your thoughts to the speaker. Make eye contact. And listen without trying to formulate a response. That can come later. First focus on what has been said.
  • Listen with empathy. Try to figure out what is most important to the speaker. Ask questions when you need clarification.
  • Be an active listener. Nod your head to show interest and, if you like, insert an "uh-huh" every so often to signal you are listening. If it's important to get the message right, provide feedback by paraphrasing what was said. "What I heard you saying is …" But before interrupting, wait until the end of a sentence or a short break.
  • Be aware of a speaker's non-verbal communication. It has been estimated that 75 percent of all communication is non-verbal. Is the speaker's posture rigid or relaxed? Does he maintain eye contact? Does his vocal tone match the words he's using?

What happens if you don't listen
Here is an example of what can happen if you don't listen. Years ago, a gifted sales person working for me said she was having trouble closing sales and asked me to join her on a sales trip to help her find out why. While she was making her pitch to the first client, he tried to interrupt but she just kept on talking. I asked her to stop, and the client revealed he had just renewed his ad contract with us and didn't need to be sold. The same kind of thing happened again later on. It was clear that she had to brush up on her listening habits if she was ever going to regain her sales skills.

Truly listening can win you points with the speaker. A few years ago, I met with a CEO who had turned around a major healthcare system and I was extremely interested in finding out how he did it. As we began our conversation, though, he received a phone call from his wife and I could tell he was in some distress. Although I had spent months planning this meeting, I immediately excused myself. It was disappointing, but a week later, the CEO called to tell me his son had been in an automobile accident. He said he had appreciated my courtesy in ending the meeting and extended an invitation to meet again.

I'm sure everyone can think of a time when listening — truly listening — proved to be a real benefit. Good listening is one of those rare skills that can be applied to everything you do, from work to home to social situations. Like any key skill, you need to constantly work on it. Even if you think you're good at it, it's not a bad idea to brush up on your listening skills.

Chuck Lauer (chuckspeaking@aol.com) was publisher of Modern Healthcare for 33 years. He is now an author, public speaker and career coach who is in demand for his motivational messages to top companies nationwide.

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