Have you ever walked away from a conversation with someone and said to yourself, “what was that all about?” Or, have you finished talking to a spouse or co-worker and thought, “they didn’t hear a word I said!”
Experts tell us that the ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important skills that contribute to a successful life. So, why does our communication fail so often? Here’s one reason.
When we think of improving communication, we often emphasize our role as the speaker or communicator. So, we focus on what we say and how we say it. We work on making our presentation more interesting and compelling. We work on voice inflection, posture, and other communication dynamics. These can be effective tools and make a positive impact. But, they amount to only half of the equation.
Just as important, perhaps even more important to the conversation than the speaker, is the listener. The listener can, by his posture, attitude, and manner, encourage or completely block out the speaker. The listener chooses how important the communication is and thereby decides which messages will get through and which ones will be discarded. All too often, listeners are not really listening at all. They are simply thinking about what they will say when the speaker finally stops talking. This type of dialogue is frustrating for both parties because very little communication actually takes place. The #1 key to improving communication is to develop the skill of really listening.
“What?” you might say, “why should I care what someone else is thinking when I know I’m right? I just want the other person to listen to me!” The problem with this attitude is that no one cares what you think until they know that you care about what they think.
You have two ears and one mouth. That is a subliminal message to you that you should talk only half as much as you listen. When we really listen, we focus on what the speaker is meaning, not just what he or she is saying. Conversations that are based on solid listening skills not only result in more effective communication, they foster trust, improve relationships and are more likely to be followed up with action.
Here are 5 tips to improve your listening skills:
- When someone is speaking, instead of thinking about what you will say as soon as they stop, think about how you might restate what the speaker is saying. In situations where there has been conflict or misunderstanding in the past, you should do just that—restate what they said to be sure they know that you got the message.
- Ask clarifying questions. When someone sees that you are actually engaged in what they are saying, they will be more inclined to listen to you when it’s your turn.
- Use your facial expression and posture to encourage the speaker to share what they think. You can literally shut down a conversation by rolling your eyes, or looking away, or acting bored. Instead, look people in the eye and let them know you care what they are saying.
- Never let someone speak to you when you can’t give them your attention. If you are too busy or distracted to listen at the moment, tell them that you are not able to give them your full attention right now and plan another time that would be better for you. If you are not interested in what the person is saying (such as a sales call or co-worker who likes to gossip), tell them you’re sorry but you cannot give them your full attention right now, then suggest another way they can still present their message such as sending you an email or voice message. This sends the message to everyone around you that talking with you means communicating.
- Diagnose before you prescribe. Don’t be too hasty to jump in with a solution to someone’s concern. Make sure you understand the situation thoroughly. Sometimes that means you will need to talk to other people or investigate the situation before giving your opinion. You may need to think about it before making a decision or responding to a concern. When people know that you will listen and understand all of the facts before you reply, they will be much more likely to listen to and value what you have to say when you do speak.