Did you know, humans spend 70% of their time communicating, in which 45% is spent listening?1 Considering how much time we spend listening, it makes sense to try and become more effective listeners. We participate in the listening process when we are trying to accurately receive messages and increase our understanding of different situations and people. Effective listening skills are vital for interpersonal communication and, consequently, for successful leaders and aspiring leaders within our organizations.
Pay Sincere Attention
Have you noticed lately that getting another person’s undivided attention can be rather difficult? Between daily demands and technology at our fingertips, it can seem quite rare for someone to look you in the eyes and pay careful attention to what you’re saying. Without acknowledgement, the speaker is often left wondering if the message is even getting across, or if the listener would notice if they stopped speaking altogether.
To meet 5 critical employee needs, effective listening is imperative. Employees desire a leader who cares about them personally and is committed to their success. When leaders spend time listening to team members, they’re in a better position to fully understand individuals’ ideas, help overcome barriers, and increase employee engagement.
Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, frequently credits his leadership success to effective listening. He has expressed, “To launch a business means successfully solving problems. Solving problems means listening.” He also refers to listening as a powerful leadership skill, “Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people who are on the front line.”
Listening is not only essential for leaders, it was also identified as one of the top skills employers seek in entry-level employees, as well as those being promoted. Listening effectively increases trust, the ability to solve problems, and assists with building deeper relationships. Employees who use active listening are better equipped to reduce conflict, have a deeper understanding of the organization’s strategy, and are more productive.
Although we all like to think of ourselves as good listeners, multiple studies have proven, the majority of us are actually terrible listeners. Research shows that the average person listens at about 25% efficiency. It’s no wonder we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful 75% of the time we are listening, the average person talks at a rate of about 125 – 175 words per minute. However, humans can only listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute.
The difference between the speaking rate and listening rate leaves the brain time to lose focus and think of other things. Not only does our mind stay active, but there are other factors affecting our ability to listen, such as multitasking, electronic devices, or external distractions (ex: a fire alarm goes off during the meeting).
The way to become a better listener is to practice active listening. Active listening involves creating a conscious effort to go beyond hearing the other person and reach understanding. This process requires that we pay sincere attention to the speaker. An effective listener lets the speaker know they’re being listened to and understood by making eye contact, nodding their head, and even occasionally asking questions and comments to indicate they are engaged in the message.
While listening to understand, try to see things from the speaker’s perspective and approach the message from a place of empathy rather than judgement. Don’t forget, much of communication is non-verbal. Pay attention to body language and what people aren’t saying. Gestures, facial expressions and eye-movements can be telling. What are the ideas and messages behind their words? What words and ideas are the speaker’s volume or tone emphasizing?
When people feel valued, they will always do more than expected. A significant amount of our time should be devoted to listening to our team members and valuing their input. Although effective listening may not be a skill that comes to most people naturally, it is something we can improve with practice.
5 Steps To Listen Intently
- Cell phones, laptops, doodling, and more can detract your focus from the speaker.
- Relax, put other things out of your mind, and concentrate on the messages being communicated.
- Ask open-ended questions to keep the speaker talking.
- Use probing questions to gather deeper understanding. Most probing questions begin with what, why, or how.
- For Example:
- Why do you think this is the case?
- How did you determine ____?
- What is the connection between ____ and ____ ?
- Clarifying questions can be used to determine specific details and to reduce misunderstanding.
- When trying to clarify a message, the receiver can use non-judgmental questions or summarize the information heard and seek feedback from the speaker as to its accuracy.
- For Example:
- Can you tell me more about ______?
- When you said _______, what did you mean?
- Try to understand the speaker’s point of view. We can’t really be listening if we are busy thinking about our response or opinion.
- Keep an open mind. Avoid making judgements or constructing arguments to counter what is said.
Summarize to Confirm Understanding
- After the speaker has finished, summarize the key themes in their message. This demonstrates to the speaker we care about understanding the message.
- Do you correctly understand the message in the way the speaker intended?
- For teams, this can mean clarifying responsibilities and next steps.
- For a leader, this can mean confirming we understand an employee’s need, or how we can better support the individual.
1. Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L. and Proctor, R. (2001) Interplay: the Process of Interpersonal Communicating (8th edn), Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt