One Perspective: It pays to listen with ears, eyes and heart

Leo MacLeod, The Daily Record Newswire

How many problems stem from people simply not listening? When we don’t listen, schedules are missed, projects lose money, lawsuits are filed and relationships suffer.

We have a fundamental need, above all else, to be heard. That’s not a business strategy; it’s a basic human need in all our relationships. To really understand what someone needs or wants, learn to listen first and talk later. Mastering effective listening is the single most important skill for business development and management. The better one listens, the more successful one will be in sales and efforts to motivate staffers to perform at their highest level.

Listening, really listening, is difficult for a variety of reasons: We think people are more interested in our solutions than telling us the problem first; we are impatient and don’t think we have time to just sit and listen; we are easily distracted by email on our phones, the conversation at the other table, the tie the speaker is wearing, or our internal chatter about other things we could be doing. To really tune in to others, first tune in to yourself. What’s keeping you from paying attention? The key to good listening is better self-awareness of the obstacles that derail us.

We listen most deeply with our ears, eyes and heart. When we listen with our ears, we track the specific words the speaker is using – not on our own version of what they said. Reflecting back by paraphrasing their words helps us stay engaged and shows the speaker we are paying close attention.

When we listen with our eyes, we can see a person’s pupils dilating, posture shifting and brow furrowing. Body language never lies. What is someone telling you through their behavior?

When I presented at a conference last year on the importance of listening, a man offered up that we listen with our heart too. “My wife tells me you look like you’re listening, but I can tell you don’t care with what I am saying.” How many of us can identify with that observation?

I got off the phone recently with someone who was upset. His words didn’t accurately express it, but his tone conveyed stress and frustration. Understand what’s going on with the speaker at an emotional level before anything else. Try to crawl into their world to understand them.

Much of my business these days is teaching people to listen. And the first thing I tell them to do is stop talking. For consultants who are on the clock to solve problems, that’s fundamentally hard. But silence is very powerful. More often than not, speakers haven’t really thought everything through. Let them articulate their thoughts, without interruption, and they can hear themselves, often for the first time.

Pairing that with paraphrases of their words accomplishes several things: It affirms whether that’s what they meant; it affirms that you understand what they are saying and want; it shows them respect; and it opens the door for questions to gain more clarity.

When you can use reflective listening along with probing questions, restating what you understand as you go along, you can decode what’s really important.

It’s not that we don’t always listen. Many times, it’s about speakers not truly understanding their own priorities and what’s most important. And yet, taking time to sort out numerous issues not only helps the speaker make critical decisions, but also sets the stage for a successful project via verbal agreement on what they expect. At the bottom of all business, the defining moment is whether client expectations are understood and being squarely addressed.

One of the biggest obstacles to tracking what someone is saying is the speaker’s inability to be clear. In a perfect world, everyone would get to the point, lay out their supporting facts succinctly and say exactly what they need. The real work in effective listening is cutting through the story and re-organizing long-winded, overly technical explanations with a few dead-end side discussions into a coherent message.

“So essentially, you are annoyed that the drawings are wrong because it’s going to set you back a week and you need to know when I can get you revisions?” The story of why the drawings are wrong or how many messages they left is not really important. Find the issue and identify how to fix it.

We like to vent but we also just want to move on. Help speakers move on without dismissing the issue. Note that when you reflect back their words and their emotion, you are not agreeing with them. You are just acknowledging their side.

Our first reaction to heated discussions is to be defensive. Don’t try to solve a problem when someone is emotional. Let people vent and acknowledge their side. Many of my clients get as much benefit in their personal relationships as they do in business ones.

Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart. Don’t be quick to jump in. Reflect back the speaker’s words as accurately as possible. Probe to gain maximum clarity and really get at the core of issues. Let people vent before solving problems.

Follow these tips and your relationships will deepen, your management issues will be fewer and your clients will return for more projects.

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Leo MacLeod is a new business coach and a strategic consultant. Contact him at leo@mainspringmarketing.com.

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