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Leadership: Listen Well and They’ll Eat Out of Your Hand

It is well-known fact among communication professionals and scholars that listening is the most important and the most neglected communication skill. Of 4 skills that we use to communicate – talking, writing, reading and listening – listening takes the prize for getting the most use. Unfortunately, though it may be widely used, it is poorly used. Business leaders often lament the dearth of listening skills in their employees. They know that deals get done and money gets made when good listening takes place.

It is well-known fact among communication professionals and scholars that listening is the most important and the most neglected communication skill. Of 4 skills that we use to communicate – talking, writing, reading and listening – listening takes the prize for getting the most use. Unfortunately, though it may be widely used, it is poorly used. Business leaders often lament the dearth of listening skills in their employees. They know that deals get done and money gets made when good listening takes place.

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It’s understandable, really. Training in communication skills is scarce and when we do receive it, it usually focuses on speaking – how to be heard, how to present, how to give a speech, how to interrupt – the programs and book titles are numerous. So people climb all over each other attempting to be heard. Perhaps you have been in meetings where nothing is accomplished because they devolve into shouting matches with each participant trying to one-up the other. And it gets a little louder with each attempt. No one takes time to consider what has just been said, to pause, to reflect and after hearing differing opinions, offer a response. The competition to be heard overwhelms the meeting. And what passes for listening – which most people have come to believe is simply the absence of speaking – is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Becoming a good listener is a terrific way to gain attention and win people over, precisely because it is so rare to find someone who does it well. Human beings find great comfort in being listened to. When we find a good listener, we take notice; we advertise this fact when referring to the person or recommending them to others. We look for opportunities to be around this person. As Susan RoAne says in her book, What Do I Say Next? Talking Your Way to Business and Social Success, “No one goes around saying ‘I really like my doctor…You ought to use him. He doesn’t listen to me!’”* Listening well draws people in and enhances your charisma.

There has been a school of thought that listening is hard work. That it should be “active.” I think that while we should certainly consciously shut ourselves up and focus when someone is speaking to us, it’s not hard work. I love listening and while it’s not a passive act, I frankly find it to be relaxing and enjoyable. It is good break from speaking. I also find it to be tremendously rewarding because I learn so much. Listening to people is a marvelous way to find out things about them, about others, about the business and social universe.

Always strive for intent listening. This takes some discipline. To get there, try the following techniques:

•Give your full attention.
•Resist planning your answer while someone is speaking.
•Resist the urge to interrupt, except to ask for clarification.
•Leave your value judgments at the door.
•Don’t allow interruptions. Usually, whatever it is can wait.
•If your mind begins to wander, exercise discipline and bring it back. Ask the person to repeat anything you might have missed.
•After being introduced to someone, listen and try to remember the name. (Most of the time, we’re so focused on the impression we’re making that it goes in one ear and out the other.)

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Good listeners are hard to find. It follows then that in a crowded, noisy world, being a good listener is a way to stand out. And since people like to talk about themselves above all, it’s easy to find listening practice opportunities. Become a good listener and you’ll be amazed at the relationships you’ll be able to build and quickly. After all, people gotta eat – might as well be out of your hand.

*RoAne, Susan; What Do I Say Next/ Talking Your Way to Business and Social Success; Warner Books, 1997

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT • www.ruthsherman.com

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About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.

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