Listening is a critical part of communication, and poor listening can contribute to a host of interpersonal and organizational problems. Because a great deal of communication time is spent listening, errors are often costly. Communications research indicates that listening errors are common; organizational members often listen inadequately, hindering personal and organizational success.
There are two major types of listening: recall listening and empathic listening. With recall listening, a person attempts to correctly interpret and remember the content of what another person says. Recall listening can be improved greatly by minimizing distractions and practicing other good listening habits. Empathic listening involves expressing certain attitudes toward the speaker, such as openness to their message, enthusiasm, and concern. A good empathic listener will use nonverbal signals like nodding and eye contact to indicate a willingness to hear the message.
There are a number of ways to improve listening. These include avoiding distractions, listening for the speaker's emotions and controlling one's own emotions, recognizing gender differences in communication style, and engaging in active listening. By mastering techniques for improved listening, managers can better communicate with their supervisors, subordinates, coworkers, and customers.
The most basic approach to improving listening in the workplace is to avoid distractions that prevent one from concentrating on what is being said. Even when distractions cannot be completely eliminated, they can be minimized in order to improve concentration. In an office setting, listeners can close their office door to minimize outside noise, or move to a more quiet location such as an empty meeting room. Additionally, it may be necessary to ignore telephone calls and newly arrived e-mail in order to fully concentrate. Finally, interruptions from others, including coworkers, should be dealt with quickly so that attention can be returned to the speaker.
Not all distractions come from others in the organization; listeners are often distracted by work or other thoughts when they should be listening. Therefore, when it is important to listen, individuals should stop working, stop reading, and stop using their computers. When distracted by thoughts, listeners should focus their minds on what the speaker is saying. Mental wanderings are as distracting as physical interruptions.
Concentration and eye contact can minimize distractions and improve listening. To better concentrate, it is important to look the speaker in the eyes and sit at a proper distance. Listeners should sit close enough that the speaker knows that he or she has their attention. Listeners should also look at the speaker so that they are better able to follow his or her words. Finally, it is important to maintain eye contact when the other person is speaking.
One major threat to effective listening is speaking too often, and especially interrupting the speaker. If listeners do not allow the speaker time to finish his thoughts, they will miss the full meaning of his words. Additionally, if listeners are concerned with their response to the speaker, they likely are thinking about their own words and not listening properly. Thus, it may be useful for speakers to pause after the speaker has finished, making sure that she has said all that she intends to say. Furthermore, this is courteous to the speaker, and allows listeners time to gather their thoughts before responding.
To listen effectively, it is important for listeners to read the speaker's emotions and manage their own feelings. Any anger, frustration, or hostility from either party can hinder the ability to listen properly. When listening to a person who is expressing negative emotion, listeners should try to show that these feelings have been recognized. Oftentimes, speakers want their feelings to be acknowledged before they are reading to discuss the content of their concern. This is particularly true with customers or clients; discussing a problem with an angry customer is likely to be futile if the listener does not first show that their feelings have been recognized and understood.
If listeners are unable to diffuse a speaker's negative emotions in a discussion, they are likely to be the target of hostile words. In this case there are several ways for listeners to respond: ignore the remark and continue listening to the speaker, make an issue of the comment, or respond to the comment in passing and continue with the original conversation. The response of choice will often depend on the situation, but in all cases should be made deliberately and not based on emotion. Responding with anger is not likely to improve the situation.
In addition to reading the speaker's emotions, listeners must recognize their emotional reaction to the speaker and to his or her words. First, it is important to recognize the things that trigger negative emotions; listeners often are aware of topics and opinions that they have a strong reaction to. Knowing these can help listeners to step back from a conversation and minimize the emotional reaction to a particular topic. Second, people may have negative reactions to particular coworkers or customers that can impede effective listening. Again, advance recognition of feelings about a person may allow the listener to set them aside more easily when it is important to listen. Finally, when negative emotions occur unpredictably, listeners must remember that highly emotional communication is rarely effective in a business context. It may be necessary for listeners to physically excuse themselves for a short time to control their emotions before resuming discussion.
Gender differences in communication can cause problems. By understanding these differences, listeners can improve their effectiveness when they are addressed by someone of the opposite sex. The major difference in communication is that women prefer to give many details before coming to a conclusion, while men prefer to give "the bottom line" with few details. This may lead male listeners to think that a female speaker is rambling or avoiding her opinion. Subsequently, the female speaker may believe that the male is not listening because he does not consider the details to be important. Conversely, a female listener may find a male speaker's comments too abrupt, or may believe the speaker is hiding details that he does not want others to know. On average, males and females may be different in the way that they communicate. However, not all individuals fit these generalized characteristics. Thus, in order to listen effectively it is important to recognize the way each person communicates, beyond mannerisms related to gender.
One specific technique to improve listening is called active listening. Active listening involves asking questions, using nonverbal cues, giving feedback, and using reflective listening to more effectively understand the speaker.
Oftentimes, a speaker may give incomplete information or speak in a way that the listener cannot understand. To understand the speaker, the listener may need to ask questions to elicit the information that has not been received. This can involve the use of closed questions, which require only a yes or no answer, and open questions, which require the speaker to elaborate. There are different times in which each is appropriate. For instance, assume a subordinate comes to a manager's office to discuss a lack of progress on a project and says, "There are some interpersonal issues with my team members." This would best be followed by an open question, such as, "What are some of the things that have been going on that are leading to these interpersonal issues?" A closed question, such as, "Is your team leader causing problems?" is unlikely to elicit the necessary information. Conversely, there are times when closed questions are most appropriate, particularly as follow-ups to open questions. After discussing the team problems with the subordinate, the aforementioned manager might confirm: "So, you'd like for me to meet with the team tomorrow to clarify each person's responsibilities?" Closed questions can often help to come to conclusions after a discussion.
Active listening also involves reading a speaker's tone of voice and body language, both of which may convey a different message than that of the words used. A person's tone of voice may reveal feelings that contradict his words; an employee who assures that she is excited to tackle a difficult task, but speaks in a flat, dull voice, may be hiding her hesitance to attempt that task. Body language can also convey more than words. A speaker who does not make eye contact and looks down may be conveying embarrassment or discomfort. A speaker who leans forward and gestures often may be excited or enthusiastic. Some commonly held beliefs about body language are not necessarily accurate. Crossed arms from a listener, often believed to be a sign of resistance to the speaker's words, may only be a sign of the listener's most comfortable sitting position. Some people believe that unwillingness to make eye contact indicates lying. However, many people can look others in the eye and lie, or may lack eye contact due to shyness or other reasons.
Feedback is a critical part of active listening; both nonverbal and verbal responses can improve listening. To show that they understand the listener, a speaker may nod their head, smile, or raise their eyebrows. Verbal responses to show comprehension include saying, "uh huh," "I agree," and "yes." To indicate a lack of understanding or the need for further information when listening, a listener might furrow his eye-brows or cock her head to one side. Replying, "I don't understand" or "Can you explain?" can improve a listener's ability to understand the speaker. One previously discussed element of feedback is acknowledging the speaker's feelings, particularly when the speaker is emotional. Before listeners can effectively understand the topic of discussion, they should recognize any negative feelings that the speaker appears to have.
Reflective listening is a hallmark of active listening and is a special type of feedback. With reflective listening, the listener takes the message that the speaker says and returns it to him or her for confirmation. For example, an employee may say, "I'm feeling very frustrated with our weekly staff meetings. We just seem to talk around all the same issues and I never get much out of them except the feeling that no one knows what anyone else is working on." In this case, a manager might respond, "It sounds as if you feel that the staff meetings are disorganized and not a good use of time." By rephrasing the speaker's words, the manager confirms that they are understood, which makes the speaker feel as if he has been heard correctly. One concern with reflective listening is that the speaker may feel as if the listener has just agreed with or validated his or her feelings. In some cases, the listener may disagree with the speaker's opinion, but still wants to indicate understanding of the message. In this circumstance, it is important to preface the reflective comment with, "I hear you saying that…" or "It seems you are…" to indicate that the message is the speaker's and not necessarily the listener's.
Listening is a critical business skill, and it can be improved by avoiding distractions, recognizing the speaker's emotions, understanding gender differences in communication style, and using active listening. By improving listening, problems associated with miscommunication in the workplace may be minimized.
SEE ALSO: Communication
Marcia J. Simmering
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