Learning to listen Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

Good listening skills are vital to healthy relationships, whether they be business or personal. To strengthen a relationship, resolve a conflict or offer support, you must possess good listening skills. Lack of attention and failing to truly listen can be costly, leading to mistakes, misaligned goals, poor service, wasted time and lack of teamwork.

People spend more time using listening skills than any other skills, but how often are we listening well? Listening seems to occur naturally; therefore, many people do not put forth the effort to become a good listener. Hearing and listening are two completely different skills. Just like other skills, listening takes practice.

“Listening in a way that demonstrates understanding and respect allows rapport to develop and this is the true foundation from which you can sell, manage or influence others,” says Keith Kartman, a senior sales executive for JRG Advisors, the management company for ChamberChoice. “You can’t sell unless you understand a potential customer’s problem, you can’t manage unless you understand employees’ motivation, you can’t gain team consensus unless you understand each team member’s feelings about the issue at hand. In all cases, you must listen to others.”

Effective listening is challenging because people often are more focused on what they want to say and how they want to respond rather than on what they are hearing. Studies show that we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful 75 percent of the time we should be listening. Immediately after we listen to someone, we recall about 50 percent of what they said. Long-term, we only remember 20 percent of what we hear.

Smart Business spoke with Kartman about listening, how to improve your listening skills and why good communication equals good business.

Why is it so vital to listen to understand?

When listening to someone, do you find yourself thinking about clients or work projects? Is there something in your personal life that you need to address? Do you realize in the middle of the conversation that you have not heard a single word the person has said?

Effective listening begins with concentrating on what others are saying and making the other person feel that you understand them. Do you know how to truly listen to someone else? Think about how you want to be listened to. Focus solely on what the speaker is saying. Try not to think about what you are going to say next and let the conversation follow a logical flow after the speaker makes his or her point. Minimize distractions by continuously refocusing your attention on the speaker. Try not to make assumptions as to what the speaker is thinking. Keep an open mind and wait until the speaker is finished before offering your opinion.

Why is being quiet so important?

Being quiet gives you the opportunity to hear the words, the tone and the meaning behind the words. Take this opportunity to observe the speaker’s body language. Maintain eye contact and avoid early evaluations. Because we are able to listen at a faster rate than most people can talk, there is a tendency to evaluate too quickly. This can be the biggest barrier when trying to accomplish effective listening skills.

It is especially important to avoid early evaluations when listening to a person with whom you disagree. When listeners begin to disagree with a sender’s message, we tend to misinterpret the information and distort its intended meaning with our own beliefs.

At the same time, avoid becoming defensive. Effective listening does not mean you will agree with the speaker’s comments all the time, but it does mean you will at least listen without becoming overly defensive. Effective listeners can listen calmly to another person even when that person is offering unjust criticism.

What are the best ways to engage yourself in a conversation?

Once the speaker has finished, ask questions. Just because you observed the body language and heard the words, don’t assume you understand what the person is trying to convey. If a specific point is unclear once the speaker has finished, ask questions to make sure you understand everything. This will help you avoid disrupting their train of thought. It is also a good idea to repeat in your own words what you feel the speaker said so you can be sure your understanding is correct. Lastly, empathize with the speaker. Do your best to put yourself in his or her shoes. This will help you gain a better perspective of where they are coming from. Listening to and acknowledging other people may seem simple, but doing it well takes plenty of practice.

Listening in a way that demonstrates understanding and respect allows rapport to develop and this is the true foundation from which you can sell, manage or influence others.

Keith Kartman is a senior sales executive for JRG Advisors, the management company for ChamberChoice. Reach him at (412) 456-7010 or keith.kartman@jrgadvisors.net.