Listen up, big boy


It’s always interesting, when you review action plans with delegates as they come back on a programme of courses, what they have done. It’s just sometimes nice when they have done anything but this year there is a theme running and it’s a good theme. Listening.

I was amused that delegates told me that, on my insistence that they practise the skills of listening that we had covered on our communication 2 days, they all were amazed that ‘listening works.’  Of course it does, I wanted to say, but didn’t, instead I asked them why and how and they came back with stories of ’empowered’  (sorry) staff, building real empathy with their colleagues and even getting on better with their spouse (yes, most were men but you’re not allowed to say that nowadays).

own up, you even zoned out as you were reading this

I was amused because it’ s not that difficult a skill. Just keep your big mouth shut, ironic that coming from myself, concentrate and echo stuff back. Oh, eye contact is useful too as is lip reading if, like me, your hearing isn’t what is used to be. Simple but, of course, we are seldom taught how to listen. At school we are taught how to read and write but told to listen. Yes, it’s simple. But there are things that stop us. The biggest problem is ‘zoning out.’ We can blame modern media and tablets and attention spans all we want but they are no excuse for not paying attention to human beings.

But it happens. Our brain has a great capacity to take in information but the average person only talks at around 125 words per minute. Our brain uses the spare capacity to think of other things and often distract ourselves, so we can ‘zone out’  when somebody is talking to us. We hear but we don’t listen. This happens all the time. People just drift, think about what they will be doing tonight, what they would like to eat, the things they have to do or be distracted by their tablet, something that catches their eye, anything, really.

It’s natural but it is not listening (and can be very impolite). Be aware of this; some people have very short attention spans, others longer but we are all open to this. Do not think of anything else; focus and concentrate. This is one pitfall, probably the biggest (own up, you even zoned out as you were reading this) but here are some more:

In contrast to the empathic nature of good listening, poor listening includes such habits and behaviours as:

  • interrupting and finishing sentences
  • waiting impatiently for your chance to speak
  • communicating with someone else in the room
  • correcting or undermining what was said
  • re-interpreting what the speaker said in your own terms
  • telling them about your experience, making theirs seem less important
  • having an answer for their problem before they’ve finished telling you what it is
  • giving advice when it has not been asked for
  • inappropriate level of eye contact (too much or too little)
  • mismatching, and breaking rapport
  • staying silent and giving no non-verbal signals
  • stopping listening because you assume you know what the other person means/is going to say
  • drifting off (or ‘zoning out’ )

Recognise yourself in any of the above? Well, don’t.

Try instead these four steps:

  1. Prepare: plan, concentrate, decide to listen; it’s the last phrased that is key, ‘decide to listen’
  2. Be aware: of your own poor habits, awareness is always the first step to improvement
  3. Rehearse : with a colleague, if it helps; practise makes perfect, of course. The good thing with listening is that you can practise all day, every day!
  4. Relax: listen to the whole message, check the other person’s body language for consistency, reflect feelings and intentions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Paraphrase and summarise to ensure understanding. Relax yourself, look relaxed and people may just relax, too, and open up a bit.

We do a one-day programme on this but it’s really quite simple. Well, simple but not easy.

Michael Moore, in his book ‘Stupid White Men’ summed it up like this:

‘Try listening. Here’s how it works: when someone else is talking, pay close attention to what they are saying. Maintain eye contact. Do not interrupt. When he or she is finished, pause and reflect on what was said. Try saying nothing at all. Notice how what you have heard is stimulating thoughts, concepts, feelings and ideas in your head. This may lead to something brilliant. You will then be able to take those ideas, claim them as yours and become famous.’

It really is that simple.

Two ears, one mouth. Use them in that ratio.


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Training Design & Delivery of topics such as Customer Service, Note Taking, Business Writing, Presentation Skills, All Management/Team Leader areas, Sales, Sales Management, all tailored and run in-house for your personal requirements. Also, coaching and mentoring.

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