Dear Annie: I know you’ve written a lot about soft skills, including how important it is to listen well at work — but what can you do if you are listening but people think you aren’t? I lead a team of 16 people, at least one (or possibly two) of whom apparently told my boss they don’t “feel heard.” So my boss told me I “need to be a better listener,” without elaborating on what exactly is wrong with how I’m listening now. I hesitated to ask him, because this is the kind of sink-or-swim culture where you’re supposed to figure things out for yourself, but do you have any ideas for me? — All Ears
Dear A.E.: Whatever your shortcomings as a listener might be, cheer up. They’re not entirely your fault. “Our culture does not encourage listening,” observes Beverly Langford, president of Atlanta-based LMA Communication. “We give lip service to it, but our society rewards the talker, not the listener.” One reason is that paying close attention to what someone else is saying is viewed as “a non-activity,” she notes in a new book, The Etiquette Edge: Modern Manners for Business Success. Ever notice, for example, that when someone wants to attend a meeting, but not participate in it, they say they’re “just going to listen”?
Yet real listening is “anything but passive,” Langford writes. “It takes an enormous amount of mental energy and concentration” — partly because it forces us to slow down. Humans think at a rate of about 500 words per minute, but most people speak at a rate of only 150 words in those 60 seconds. Instead of using that gap to think about what’s being said, she notes, our minds often tend to wander off to somewhere else entirely.
The Etiquette Edge, by the way, is a practical, down-to-earth guide to developing a wide range of the soft skills most in demand these days. Here are 4 ideas from the book, and from a conversation with Langford, on how to listen:
- Suggest a better time. Open-door policies and open-plan offices are great for collaboration, but they can create a constant stream of distractions. So can whatever urgent stuff you’ve already got going on when a colleague is trying to get your full attention. “Let’s face it. Sometimes we just aren’t in the frame of mind to concentrate on what someone is saying,” Langford writes. Rather than try to squeeze the conversation in around the edges of your mind, make an appointment to talk later. Most people are “flattered that you care enough about what they have to say to find a better time to focus on it.”
- Be aware of your own hot buttons. Everyone has a few. “No matter how open-minded we claim to be, we all carry emotional baggage that interferes with our ability to listen,” writes Langford. “Words, phrases, and voice inflections — or even a person’s appearance — can trigger negative reactions that shut down our receptivity.” Someone making a presentation, for instance, “who looks and sounds alarmingly like your Aunt Carmella, whose visits you always dreaded, is going to face a particular challenge getting through to you” — and, worse, she won’t know why. Practice spotting the difference between a “legitimate reaction and a knee-jerk reflex, and focus on overcoming the latter when you’re listening.”
- Listen “between the lines.” If you only hear the words someone is saying, “you may miss the more important meanings,” Langford notes. Facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, and posture all matter. “Are you receiving mixed signals? Do the words say ‘I’m on board’ while the body language says, ‘I’d rather be anywhere than here’?” Someone who tells you he loves your idea, for example, while slouching way back in his chair with his arms crossed against his chest, is actually saying two very different things. Make sure you’re hearing, and responding to, both of them.
- Acknowledge what you just heard. Your team members’ complaint that they don’t “feel heard,” Langford says, probably means that they don’t think you’ve taken any action based on what they told you. One possibility is that “your response to what someone said came across as perfunctory or dismissive. We’ve all been in meetings where someone clearly put a lot of thought into a point they were making — only to have the leader move quickly on to the next person with barely a nod.” Even if you’re pressed for time, take a few seconds to acknowledge what’s just been said, whether by briefly summarizing it, asking a pertinent question, or otherwise indicating your mind wasn’t elsewhere.
It may take you a while to become a more effective listener since, like anything else worth learning, it takes practice. Langford, who teaches communications skills to MBA students at Georgia State, says she often gets asked by companies where she does executive coaching to come in and give a one-hour or half-day seminar to employees on how to listen better.
“I always decline to do that, because it isn’t something you can learn in an hour, or in an afternoon,” she says. “”Listening is mainly a mindset. You need to want to learn from people by hearing what they have to say. Be genuinely curious.”
Got a career question, or a workplace dilemma? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.