We all know that there is a major difference between hearing and listening. Great leaders understand this difference and have developed a set of communication skills that ensure that when they hear something, they actually listen to what is being said. When it comes to success in your career, this subtle difference can make you or break you!
Let’s start with the obvious – hearing. Hearing is the start of the listening process. If you have difficulty hearing, you need to develop strategies to remove the physical and environmental barriers that may be getting in the way. Let’s start with the environment. It is absolutely critical for managers and leaders to hold meetings in an environment where distractions are minimal and everyone’s focus is maximized. If something is worth hearing, it is worth finding the right setting for the conversation. Hallways, elevators, and cubicle walk-about strolls are not ideal for true conversations.
Lunch, networking events, and even the bullpen at work might be great settings to team-build or to informally build a relationship with a client, but it may not be the best place to have a meaningful, client-centered or work-related conversation. So, choose your environment wisely. Think about all of the potential distractions in a restaurant, at a networking event, or, worse still, at a sports venue. You cannot possibly listen if you cannot hear everything being said without interruption. When you find yourself stuck in this situation, you might make the suggestion, “We should probably have this conversation back at the office so we can both focus on the details without interruption.” Your prospect, colleague, or client will thank you, and you can get back to relationship-building. It will also give you some time to think about how you want the conversation to go. Informational conversations require an ideal setting.
Now, on to the tough part – listening. This is where it gets interesting. There is much more to listening than meets the ear! In fact, when done properly, listening is one of the most challenging activities we engage in on a daily basis. Consider these three elements for a start: words, actions and emotions. When combined, these elements tell us the whole story of the conversation we are having.
Words have meaning. The listener wants to make certain that they are capturing not only the words that are being spoken, but the context as well. There is a big difference between hearing that the building is on fire and that a building is on fire in Oklahoma. Though equally tragic, one presents imminent danger while the other does not. This is where notetaking comes in. Once you have the right time and time place selected for a conversation, you need to be prepared. Bring any documents along that might help provide context. List out a short agenda to help you stay focused and take notes. Note the words used and capture the context of them. There is a great tool available that you can easily master called Mind Mapping, which will help you recall the conversations and how they developed during the meeting.
Once you are confident that you have the core concepts captured and you understand the speaker’s vocabulary, it is helpful to watch their actions. This doesn’t just mean their gestures and body language, though those are also important. It also means that you should understand the steps taken and the accomplishments that have brought their team to this point. We have all heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words.” This is where you up the listening game to include a bit of behavioral analysis. Many good ideas have died due to a lack of action. Pay attention to the entire process. Ask process-oriented questions and document the answers. This will help you down the road to understand not only what was accomplished, but how it all got done.
The final component when you are engaged in the art of listening is emotion. There have been a ton of articles about Emotional Intelligence in professional publications lately. It is a field that is currently coming into vogue again. When a person invests time and effort in a conversation, they almost always bring some emotion to the meeting. Excitement, jealousy, dedication, interest, and even anger can come up. The listener needs to be in tune with these emotional components in order to achieve their desired results. Know what drives the speaker and you will better understand their position.
The next time you are in a conversation with someone about something important, keep these three things in mind: words have meaning, actions can speak louder than words, and emotions define driving forces. Paying attention to these three critical elements will enable you to become a world-class listener – and, in turn, a much better leader.
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