The price of poor listening

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Millions of dollars are lost every day in organizations simply because of poor listening. In your company it may be only thousands, or hundreds, or maybe just twenty or fifty here and there. Whatever the amount, I'm guessing you would be amazed at how much money is lost due to poor listening skills.

The problem is that everyone wants to be heard first. Think about it: When people are striving to be heard and understood first, it's pretty hard for listening to occur.

Poor listening leads to assumptions and misunderstandings. These lead to errors, ineffective decisions, and/or costly mistakes. On a personal level, poor listening leads to hurt feelings and a loss of team cohesion. This deteriorates trust and weakens communication even further.

By connecting the dots, you can see that poor listening leads to lower profits.

The definition of listening
Hearing is one thing, listening is another. Before we continue, let's look at some definitions:

Hearing: The act of perceiving a sound by ear
Listening: Truly trying to understand another person's point of view

Hearing happens passively. If your ears are functioning as designed, you can hear. You don't have to think. Something happens that causes a noise, and if you're close enough, you can hear it.

On the other hand, listening requires an active, conscious choice. To listen, you must have a purpose in your heart and apply mental effort. You might even think of listening as a task that requires focused attention to get accomplished.

Getting past the obstacles
Fear is the largest obstacle that inhibits listening whenever disagreements exist. People are afraid that if they set their own perspective aside for a moment and truly strive to understand another person's point of view, several things may happen:

  • it will be perceived as agreement, even if no agreement exists
  • they'll learn something that shows their own perspective was incomplete
  • they won't get a chance for their own point of view to be heard
  • all of the above

Other obstacles exist for why we don't truly listen, but if we're going to get past them we must acknowledge one very important fact: Truly understanding someone else's point of view does not come naturally. It's a learned skill that always requires effort.

The mechanics of listening
What follows are two steps that help with true listening. That said, know that these steps are only techniques. They will be effective only when they are born out of a sincere desire to understand.

If you don't have that desire, it might help to realize that nobody has all the answers, not even you. It also helps to realize that other perspectives have value, and that through true listening you can see a bigger picture and subsequently make better decisions. We could spend more time on the reasons to listen, but for now let's address the how.

Step One: Focus on the other person
To truly listen, start by focusing totally on the other person. This means making good eye contact and halting all unnecessary activity. You'll also need to put your own opinions aside for a moment (don't worry; you can share them them later). When focusing on another person you do no speaking. Instead, tune into the other person's body language and voice inflection to identify his/her core perspectives.

Inside your head you might even ask yourself, "What is this person thinking or feeling?" Is this person frustrated? Concerned? Thrilled? Happy? Disappointed? Is he or she describing a problem? Offering a solution to a problem? Expecting a particular action? Looking for help? Relaying information?

Strive to understand more than the person's words by looking for nuances in the thoughts and feelings surrounding their words. If you're visual, strive to see the picture that's inside the other person's head.

Step Two: Seek confirmation on what you perceived
During Step One you may think you understand what's being communicated, but the other person has no assurance that you do, and frankly, neither do you.

Verify your perceptions (which are simply "educated guesses" at this point) by getting confirmation from the other person. This can done several ways, but usually by asking questions. "If I understand you correctly, you're concerned about the deadline?" Or, inquisitively, "So you're concerned about the deadline?"

Confirmation questions should be genuine (ie, not jaded), and should allow the other person to say "yes, that's it," or "no, not quite."

If you hear "not quite," ask the person to clarify and then start over again. Until you can briefly sum up the other person's point of view to his/her satisfaction, true listening will not have occurred.

Try this process the next time you encounter a difference of opinion. It requires much patience and a strong desire to truly understand, but the result is almost always better working relationships, better decisions, and a better bottom line.

Copyright © Dan Bobinski, used with permission
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