5 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener

Lee Polevoi by Lee Polevoi on June 17, 2014
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Successful entrepreneurs can profit as much from effective listening as speaking. “We use listening to gain understanding, to obtain information, and to learn,” notes business development trainer James Nathan. “Being a better listener … will benefit you in improved productivity, influence, persuasion and negotiation. You will avoid more misunderstanding and improve rapport and communication.”

Nathan and other communication experts advocate learning the skill known as “active listening” — making the deliberate effort to listen to and comprehend what another person is trying to say.

“It takes effort to listen actively,” says business coach John Chancellor. “It is easy to fall back into the habit of listening passively — that is, hearing the words but not really striving to understand the meaning the speaker is trying to get across.”

Failing to understand what’s being said can result in costly mistakes with your customers, vendors, and employees. Here are five tips to improve your listening skills and promote effective communication:

1. Focus on who you are talking to. As difficult as it may be in a busy work environment, active listening requires that you stop doing everything else and just listen. Put down your phone or tablet. Clear your head of the distractions that keep you from focusing on the person you’re engaged with.

2. Don’t fake it. Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, calls them “bad listeners.” You know who they are (and sometimes they’re us!) — people who regard conversations “as opportunities to broadcast their own status or ideas, or who spend more time formulating their next response than listening to their conversation partners.” Ferrari’s rogue’s gallery of bad listeners includes:

  • The Opinionator:  Someone who “listens to others primarily to determine whether or not their ideas conform to what he or she already believes to be true.”
  • The Answer Man: Anyone who “spouts solutions before there is even a consensus about the challenge — a clear signal that input from conversation partners isn’t needed.”
  • The Pretender: Individuals who “feign engagement and even agreement but either aren’t interested in what you’re saying or have already made up their minds.”

Good listeners neither interrupt nor form an opinion prematurely about what’s being said. They “wait until the other person is finished before they create a response,” says Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker.

3. Pay attention to body language. Active listening involves leaning in toward the speaker, nodding at appropriate moments, and maintaining eye contact.

You should also pay close attention to the speaker’s posture and other nonverbal “tells,” such as gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions. These will help you clue in on their attitudes and emotions, generating powerful insights that can help you in the course of negotiations or when trying to uncover an employee’s resistance to your new idea.

4. Paraphrase and repeat back what you hear. You may think you get what the other person is saying, until you attempt to restate their message in your own words. When they’ve finished speaking, paraphrase what they’ve said to make sure you’ve heard the actual meaning and intent of their words. Consultant Guy Harris suggests saying things like,”I heard you say …. Is that correct?” and “If I understand correctly, your concern is ….”

5. Ask clarifying questions. A customer or employee may not be as articulate as you’d like in voicing a complaint or request. It’s up to you to ask open-ended questions that help them get to the point so you can be sure to understand and respond appropriately. Asking relevant and clarifying questions demonstrates to the listener that you’ve been paying attention but would like a bit more information. (Asking questions also demonstrates your engagement in the conversation.)

Actively listening requires a greater commitment on your part (and probably isn’t necessary for every single encounter). But enhanced communication will help you better lead your employees and make meaningful contact with your customers.

Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.

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