“It is the providence of wisdom to speak. It is the privilege of wisdom to listen” Oliver Wendell Holmes
Communication is commonly defined as, “The imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.”
The word “communicate” is very much like the word “best.” Both words are both tossed around as if we know what they actually mean. While “best” carries a connotation of excellence or superiority, the reality is that the meaning varies widely based on the situation and the purveyor of the term. So it is also with the word “communicate”.
When we establish the meaning of leadership and examine its essence, we will conclude with the knowledge that leadership is communication. The application of every recognized leadership skill known to man is totally worthless without the ability to effectively communicate.
Effective leadership is effective communication. The potential to effectively communicate is predicated on my ability (or inability) to listen effectively. As a leader, I deem that I have a responsibility to hear the words being directed at me and to listen to what is being said.
A study involving over 8,000 people employed in businesses, hospitals, universities, military and government agencies found that virtually all of the respondents believed that they communicate as effectively as or even more effectively than their co-workers. Research, on the other hand, shows that the average person only listens with about 25% efficiency.
The most sobering part of this information is that in a 10 minute conversation with a boss, colleague, customer, spouse, or child, most people only listen to about 2 ½ minutes of what is being said!
While most people agree that listening effectively is a very important skill, most people do not feel a strong need to improve their own listening skill levels.
We send messages in a variety of ways other than with the words we use. (Our words only account for 7% of our overall communication.) Factors like voice tone, voice inflection, facial expressions, and body language convey more of the message than the words we actually use. We must look, listen, and feel for the meanings beyond the words.
Every communication is vulnerable to misunderstanding and misinterpretation and is challenging when we are aware of and can avail ourselves of all the tools we use in communicating with each other. The possibility of a lack of understanding presents itself even more as we increasingly rely on e-mailing and texting.
Effective listening is actively absorbing the information given to us by a speaker, showing that we are listening and interested and providing feedback to the speaker so that he or she knows the message has been received. In Rapport Leadership’s Power Communication course, many of the skill sets involved in becoming an effective listener are both explained and practiced.
Since we think about six times faster than we speak, our brains have immeasurable capacity to do other things while we are engaged in a conversation. The vast majority of people fill this capacity with planning other tasks, thinking other thoughts, or formulating a response to the small portion of the conversation we actually choose to hear.
Effective listening requires practice at “active listening” techniques. This is where you make a conscious decision to hear the words another person is saying and listen to the entire message being sent.
“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Peter Drucker
The most used and least effective style of listening is the act of listening to respond. Listening to respond happens when we are more interested in promoting our own point of view than in understanding or exploring someone else’s view. We either listen for openings to speak or for flaws or weak points we can attack. As we pretend to pay attention, we are impatiently waiting or an opening, or internally formulating our rebuttal and planning our eloquent or devastating comeback so that we may turn the topic of conversation toward us and/or destroy the other’s point of view and make us the victor.
The least used and most effective style of listening is the act of listening to understand. Listening to understand means we are genuinely interested in understanding what the other person is thinking, feeling, wanting, or what the entire message means.
• When we are listening to understand, we want to give the speaker our undivided attention and acknowledge the message
• We are conscious, aware, and we recognize that what is not being said also speaks loudly.
• We want to watch the person’s eyes for clues to both their communication style and the unspoken meanings.
• The better we are at matching and modeling someone’s primary neuro-linguistic modality, the better opportunity we have of establishing effective communication.
• We must put aside distracting thoughts and stay focused on the entire message the speaker is sending.
• We must avoid being distracted by environmental factors. (i.e. the computer screen, the TV, or other employees or activities)
• We must “listen” to the speaker’s body language. (50% of all communication is contained in our body language).
We can show someone we are listening and acknowledge the message in a variety of ways:
• We can use our own body language and gestures to convey our attention. (We can make sure our posture is open and inviting.)
• We can nod occasionally. (An affirmative nod indicates acceptance, agreement, or understanding, and it encourages the speaker to continue.)
• We can use facial expressions. (To relay understanding, concern, confusion, acceptance, etc.)
• We can encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes” or “uh-huh.”
Listening to understand also requires the ability to provide feedback. Feedback is the action portion of Active Listening. Our personal perceptions filter information based on our assumptions, judgments, experiences, and belief systems. As an effective listener, our role is to clarify understanding by our willingness to actively provide feedback:
• We can paraphrase the speakers’ words back to them (What I hear you saying is…” “Sounds like you said.”); these responses give the speaker a great opportunity to acknowledge your understanding or correct any misconceptions.
• We can ask questions to clarify points or explain meaning. (“What did you mean when you said…?” or “Is this what you mean?”)
As a general rule, avoid telling your own stories or giving advice. (This suggestion comes back to the speaker’s intent for the communication.) All too often we will listen intently to what someone has to say and then begin to tell our story with the intent of acknowledging their experience with a similar situation or to indicate “You’re not alone.” Too often, telling our own story runs the risk of turning a conversation away from the speaker and gives the impression of “I’ve got one up” on the speaker.
One of the tools we practice in Rapport’s Power Communication course is to raise someone’s awareness of when s/he is telling a story by having other team members say the word “story” as soon as someone heads down that path. The more aware we are of our own actions, the more opportunity we have to change our behaviors for the positive.
Unsolicited advice is also something to avoid as an effective listener. If no advice is solicited, then giving it is quite presumptuous and will actually undermine the opportunity to have effective communication. When someone is telling me about a problem s/he is having, I can barely resist the urge to tell him/her what they get to do to fix the problem. (Everybody likes being told what to do, right?) Once I have stopped listening and have started giving my advice, I dominate the conversation. My wife has become my greatest ally in helping me change this behavior. Her willingness to remind me when this behavior appears has really helped raise my awareness of how many times it happens! As I prompt myself to concentrate on what someone has said and to listen for the true meaning of their communication, I have the opportunity to ask questions like “Would you like my opinion?” or “Would you like some advice? It is amazing when I take the time to offer help how few people are willing to take it!
It takes a great deal of concentration and determination to become an active listener. Old habits are hard to break, and basic human nature is to fall back into our old behaviors and comfort zones relatively quickly. We must be deliberate with our listening skills and remind ourselves constantly that the goal is to truly hear the whole message someone is conveying. Listening to understand will demonstrate a genuine care and concern for those around you. It will improve relationships and trust levels, and it will ensure there is less opportunity for miscommunication. Effective communication skills will allow you to thrive rather than survive in every area of your life.