Effective Listening Can Uncover New Opportunities

Information and understanding never just seep in through your pores, or even your ears. To understand another’s perspective and encourage coworkers, direct reports, and even your boss, to share critical information and feedback, you need to know how to listen. “A lot of clues to what someone really wants to say come through how it’s said and nonverbally,” says Sarita Maybin, author and communication expert. Learn to spot those clues with Maybin and other experts at WFF’s virtual 2020 Resolve to Thrive Leadership Development Workshops this fall.

Too often taken for granted, underrated and underutilized, listening is the communication skill many assume they have already mastered. The research tells a different story. Although most people rate themselves as good listeners, the average person only listens with about 25% efficiency, retaining just a fraction of what they hear.
That’s too bad, because effective listening is associated with a deeper understanding of workplace goals and opportunities, improved problem solving, less conflict and better relationships.
“People underestimate the power of listening,” says Sarita Maybin, communications expert and author of If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say? “When you can acknowledge and validate what others are saying and actually demonstrate your understanding, you gather richer input, deepen engagement and even surprise others who are often accustomed to not feeling heard,” she said.
Maybin will present the November 19, 2020 virtual WFF Leadership Development Workshop (LDW), Communicating for Success: Listening Between the Lines.
Listening is a verb
The term active listening was introduced in the late 1950s by two psychologists who worked in the field of human relations training. Active listening strives to more fully engage the listener in conversation by having them eliminate distractions, remain fully present and actually choose to listen. Like any skill, it involves conscious thought and intentional behaviors.
Active listening is typically understood to include three elements.
  • Displaying nonverbal involvement through body language
  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s message without judgment
  • And asking questions that encourage elaboration
The United States Institute of Peace uses these key principles for active listening.
Engage your body and demonstrate interest physically with eye contact, nodding, facing the person and using an open and relaxed body posture. On the phone, this can be achieved with tone of voice and brief acknowledgements as well.
Paraphrase by restating the speaker’s basic ideas in your own words. That process tests your understanding and encourages the speaker to keep talking. “When you can refer back to something someone has said, it shows people they have your attention and sends a powerful signal that what they are saying matters to you,” Maybin says. “Just being able to say, ‘As Sue said a moment ago,’ or ‘I’d like to hear more about Tamara’s ideas on the marketing campaign,’ sends a powerful message about your level of engagement.”
Reflect back the feelings you hear and see the speaker expressing. This technique not only shows you are paying attention, but hearing their feelings expressed accurately by someone else can also help people better evaluate and process what they are experiencing. You can reflect the speaker’s feelings with language such as, “Are you saying that you’re angry/disappointed/glad, because . . .?”
Maybin emphasizes the importance of listening for what is unspoken as well. “If you listen and observe, you may notice that someone is holding back,” she says. “Maybe they are not forthcoming with detail. Or being abrupt. That can indicate they have something important to say but do not know how to say it or are afraid to say it. It may be incredibly important for you to hear. Give them the space and encouragement to verbalize it.”
She recommends specific phrases that demonstrate neutral curiosity, such as pairing, “I noticed” and “I’m wondering.”  If a colleague is silent during a meeting about a major change, you might ask later, “I noticed you didn’t comment when we talked about the new sales approach. I’m wondering how you feel about it.”
Clarify by asking open-ended questions that help illuminate the meaning of what was said.
This enables the speaker to elaborate and helps you get more information and avoid misunderstandings.
Listening to criticism
One of the most difficult times to listen is when someone is saying something you don’t want to hear. Maybin has just one rule in these circumstances. “Whenever you hear criticism, ask for more,” she urges. “Instead of getting defensive, ask the person to elaborate, tell you more and to share specifics. Don’t rush to explain it away. Wade in to see what you can learn.”
Listen for the first time, all over again
Because people generally are not adept at listening, a lot gets lost in the shuffle. Often that includes the actual problem someone is sharing. “Especially in customer-facing roles,” Maybin cautions, “we can sometimes feel almost like we’ve heard it all before. But if you don’t provide the space for someone to share their concerns or ideas in depth, and don’t pay attention to the emotions and nonverbals behind the feedback, you can find yourself chasing the same issue again and again without getting to solutions.”
You can grow your ability to listen and lead through WFF’s series of four half-day virtual workshops for emerging leaders and emerging executives. The 2020 Leadership Development Workshops (LDWs) combine outstanding content, expert speakers, industry role models and peer connection in a streamlined, online format. Resolve to Thrive.

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