How important is listening to your ability to be a better leader? A better team member? A better friend, sibling, sister-in-law, parent….well, you get the picture. Listening is one of our most important communication skills, something we do every day, and yet fewer than 5% of us ever take any training in it.
You might think we are already so good at listening we don’t need training, yet according to Inscape Publishing, publishers of the Personal Listening Profile®, people filter out or change the intended meaning of what they hear in 70% of all communication! Just think of what this is costing us all in time, money and trust in our relationships.
So what can you do to become a better listener? Try this ONE simple but oh-so-difficult step and see if it doesn’t make a huge difference in your ability to be a great listener. I am willing to bet it will.
Here it is: challenge yourself to avoid all distractions when you listen. Whether you are listening in a conversation, listening to a web cast training session, or having a live conversation with a friend or business colleague, you may find yourself distracted by your computer, your workspace, other conversations going on, even your own thoughts. And heaven help you if you are listening and driving. These distractions mean you are listening with only part of your brain, and you may find it difficult later to recall details or even the emotional context of your conversations.
It may be OK to watch the news while folding your laundry, but humans really aren’t wired to do multiple complex tasks at once. Ask John Medina, author of Brain Rules. He says:
“The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Businesses and schools praise multitasking, but research clearly shows that it reduces productivity and increases mistakes. Try creating an interruption-free zone during the day–turn off your email, phone, IM program, or Facebook–and see whether you get more done.”
Multi-tasking gets lots of good press these days, but it is just not a good idea for tasks as complex as listening. It is embarrassing to admit this, but I recently became aware of how poor my listening habits had become. I caught myself checking email while speaking on the phone, looking through papers or putting away dishes while chatting with loved ones. I didn’t mean to be rude, I was just busy. But it was rude. It wasn’t good listening. I decided I could do better.
So I made a deliberate decision to stop multi-tasking and really focus when listening to someone, whether on the phone or in person. It was more difficult than I had ever imagined! The urge to stand up, go get a drink of water, straighten some papers, or just check something on my computer was nearly overwhelming. The very first time I tried to have a conversation without doing something else was torture. I thought of at least 10 things to do, but stifled the urge to do most of them. (I might have gotten that glass of water.) The second conversation was worse; my husband called me on it; I was putting away dishes. Caught! The third time was enlightening: I was in a room with a land line and a corded telephone. It felt like a ball and chain, but I did stay put through the conversation. Slowly I have gotten better at focusing when I listen, and I continue working to build this new habit.
Like I said, it is oh-so-simple. But good listening requires you to focus. Yes, it is harder than it sounds. Try it, and let me know what you think. How do you eliminate distractions when you are listening?