7 ways to develop listening skills

by | Mar 7, 2019

Is the need to develop listening skills a thing of the past?

 

Suggesting that we no longer need to develop listening skills because they will not be a critical top skill seems to me to be a poor strategy and something we all need to work on an ongoing basis.

 

With the advent of AI and automation soft skills are going to be of increasing importance. The World Economic Forum have listed the vital skills for 2020 (see the chart below.) Strangely they have left listening skills off the list. At the recent SHRMTech in Dubai I raised this point with Samie Al-Achafri  CEO at Marmalade Fish. He made an interesting observation. Culturally we place greater value on speaking. We hear it in many business manuals - speak first and assertively  From  a very early age in school, we learn that putting our hands up and speaking up gets us greater recognition. Additionally, we tend to assess listening skills by personal preference tests, which are not always accurate. Who really admits they don't listen properly? There seem to be few ways if any, to assess them objectively.

 

There is a Korean proverb which caught my attention and to paraphrase "The first bird out of the nest gets shot" which suggests there is value to waiting and taking your time. So suggesting that we no longer need to develop listening skills because they will not be a critical top skill seems to me to be a poor strategy and something we all need to work on an ongoing basis.

7 ways to develop listening skills

Here are some tips that I have learned over the years.

1. Engaged body language

You convey that you are paying attention, via body language and non-verbal communication whether this is hand gestures or facial movements. This sends a message that is as strong as any words you speak to put them at ease. In most Western cultures, eye contact is considered a basic ingredient of effective communication. When we talk, we look each other in the eye. That doesn't mean that you can't carry on a conversation from across the room, or from another room, but if the conversation continues for any length of time, you (or the other person) will get up and move. The desire for better communication pulls you together.

2. Listen attentively

Our concentration spans are reducing all the time. It’s the scourge of our modern device addicted lives. It’s really important to focus on what the person is saying to you rather than waiting for a moment to speak. We also need to stop using the time a person is speaking to rehearse our response. Our minds can’t cope with two dialogues an external one and an inner one.

When someone is speaking to you it’s important to give them your full attention. If you are in the middle of something tell them that want to focus on them and ask them to wait a few minutes until you are finished. When you are ready – tell them and make sure that you have put your phone down or removed whatever it was that was taking up your energy and get in the zone – their zone. When you interrupt it signals to the speaker: 

    • "My time is more important than your's."
    • "I am more interesting than you are ."
    • "You don't matter"
    • "This isn't a duet it's a dual and I'm going to win."

3. Empathise

This is particularly important if a person is talking to you about a difficult topic.Try and understand what is going on for them and walk in their shoes. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, that is sympathy, but about establishing their motivation for raising their points of concern.

We all experience difficulties focusing on what someone is saying especially if their story goes beyond a minute or their voice isn’t engaging. It’s easy to drift off. If possible wait until the end of their points and then recap ”Have I understood correctly….” And reiterate their main arguments to show that you have listened. Sometimes it maybe necessary to interject by saying “I’m getting confused – can you repeat that” which also shows you are engaged.

We all process ideas and articulate them differently. Some connect the dots faster and are more agile thinkers and more articulate. To become a more thoughtful communicator and to develop listening skills adjust your style to the speaker's. If they are faster than you it might be necessary to slow them down to your pace.

4. Is there a sub-text?

Very often the presenting issue is not always the real issue so it’s important to ask some deeper questions to get to the root of the problem. Very often you can deduce this from tone of voice, body language and facial expressions.  When you are truly listening to someone you easily see anger, enthusiasm and frustration in their body language. Someone might say they are OK with a situation, but what does their other communication say? It’s not just about words

5. Don’t make assumptions

When someone recounts an experience or an issue we all tend to make judgements almost subliminally This is before our own unconscious biases kick in about any aspect of the speaker from their appearance to their accent. Listening without judging is a key element to develop listening skills. “Why on earth did she do that? What was she thinking” The moment you have made that judgement you have compromised your role as a listener.

Mentally block out any distractions and try not to focus on the speaker's voice, accent, speech or other mannerisms.  More importantly, don't be come pre-occupied  with your own thoughts, feelings, or biases.

6. Don’t jump to conclusions

The speaker is very often trying to sort their own thoughts as they share what’s on their mind. Wait until they have finished before you form any conclusions. Very often if the person is a slow speaker or is having trouble rallying their thoughts that we finish their sentences for them. This means we are really having a conversation with ourselves!

7. Don’t offer solutions

Very often you are not clear why a person has raised an issue with you. So, ask them what their expectations are. If say want input rather than say “Here’s what you should do” Reframe with “Here’s what I would do”

If they just want to vent then empathise with their problem. If venting is their modus operandi and they haven’t taken any action, you have to make your position clear. Suggest that this is the fifth time they have raised the same issue with you and perhaps they should think about finding a solution. You can also suggest you would be happy to help them work through the problem if it’s appropriate.

Listening skills are leadership skills

It's important to develop listening skills. They under pin many of the other key skills which are going to become increasingly valuable as our workplaces develop and become more complex. I have already said that soft skills are going to become hard currency in the future of work. "Soft skills are not just hard currency for individuals, but a business imperative. A study from  Korn Ferry Hay Group, used data from 55,000 professionals in 90 countries. They found that  In 11 of 12 emotional intelligence competencies performed better. Studies from Mckinsey to Sodexho indicate that emotional intelligence increases with gender balanced and diverse teams."

What is a real flip for the first time, businesses should pay more attention listening to women, rather than trying to fix them. This what worries me about the WEF report. Traditionally soft skills have been designated as feminine qualities have been devalued, but these skills are competences that contribute to making the most conscious leaders.

If you want to enhance your attentive communication and soft skills in your organisation check out our corporate services programs.

 

 

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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