Avoid these poor listening pitfalls - best managers are best listeners

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Think back to the best boss you've ever had. Chances are, that person really listened to what you had to say in spite of a busy, demanding work schedule. 

Bosses who are good listeners convey to their employees that they are valued and that what they have to say is important. Consequently, these bosses are not only well-informed but often have loyal, committed employees. 

Most managers are constantly bombarded with data to be sorted through, decisions to be made and schedules to meet -- hardly an atmosphere conducive to active listening. 

Research, done in companies across the country, reveals that most managers spend over 60% of every day interacting with people. Up to 80% or more of that time is spent listening. 

With so much important information coming at us through our ears, we can't afford to miss much. That's why it's shocking to discover that these studies show that we forget 50% of a 10-minute presentation within 24 hours, and 25% more is lost by the next day. 

Our listening habits are not the result of poor training, but rather the result of the LACK of it. We need to learn to listen the way we learned to read and write -- systematically and with practice. 

In the business place, like elsewhere in out lives, we need to listen between the lines to truly comprehend what is being said. Often, people hint at what they are really thinking, or have an undeveloped thought that needs to be drawn out. 

If you miss these cues, you may be operating with only surface information. When a subordinate quits, a project fails or morale sags, you may have been forewarned, but you never really listened. 

According to Drs. Ralph Nichols and Manny Steil, here are some of the bad listening habits we have acquired and what you can do about them. 

In & Out Listening
We can listen four times faster than the average person speaks. The poor listener will daydream, particularly with a slow speaker. A good listener will evaluate, synthesize, weigh the evidence and listen between the lines for the feelings beneath the surface.
 

Red Flag Listening
To some people, words are like the proverbial red flag to the bull. Words like "new procedure," "taxes," "grievance," can provoke strong emotions that shut down listening. Good listeners are sensitive to the feel of these emotional "hooks." They keep their mouths closed and their minks open until the speaker has had a chance to finish his train of thought. 

Prematurely Judging the Speaker or his Ideas
We sometimes decide too quickly that the subject or speaker is boring or makes no sense. The good listener will try to overlook the speaker's delivery and seek out the content of the message. The skilled listener will also ask, "What's in this for me? How can I use this information?" Furthermore, he will listen for central themes and ideas, not just for facts.
 

Preparing for the counterattack 
We don't like to have our pet ideas, prejudices and points of view overturned. When this happens, the poor listener will tune out and begin planning his own defense or a cross-examination of the speaker. (Red flag listeners often fall into this category, as you might expect.) Good listeners won't judge until comprehension is complete.
 

Too-Deep-for-me Listening
When a topic is judged as too new, complex or too difficult, the poor listener mentally shuts off.
 

Good listeners will make a real effort to understand and will ask lots of questions. They will try to relate the information to their own experience and use their listening time to mentally summarize and look for central themes. 

There is one thing you can do to enable you to overcome most of the bad habits mentioned above: paraphrasing. This repeating in your own words what you think the speaker meant, without interjecting your own opinion or questions, is the single most important listening technique. 

Paraphrasing sounds like this: "In other words, your plan is to research the topic and prepare a proposal. Is that right?" 

The components of paraphrasing are: 

  1. repeat a summary of the speaker's thoughts and feelings; 
  2. use key words and phrases to avoid "parroting"; 
  3. always check with the speaker to make sure your summary was accurate; 
  4. if you are losing the train of thought, it's all right to interrupt to paraphrase; 
  5. don't insert your opinions or argue a point until the speaker has completed his comment.
It is particularly important to paraphrase when you are going to make a decision on the information, opinion or suggestion offered. And it's equally important when your immediate reaction is to reject, ignore or disagree with what you're hearing. 

When you confirm your understanding of someone's thoughts or ideas, it doesn't necessarily mean that you agree with what is being said. When you say, "In other words, you're saying...," "So you feel that ...," you're simply making sure you both share the same understanding of what is meant. This puts you in a position to take whatever action is necessary. 

Even if you choose not to follow a suggestion or use an idea, the fact that you've taken the time to listen and understand is motivation. It meets the speaker's need for recognition and strengthens the perception that his suggestions and opinions will be listened to and understood. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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