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Active Listening - HEAR what others are actually saying

Our culture largely rewards people for their ability to talk. Active listening, or the ability to effectively understand what another is saying, is often overlooked. Yet, an often quoted study done at Loyola University in Chicago determined that the ability to listen is the single most important attribute of an effective manager. When thinking about what goes wrong in a business situation, much of it stems from someone not hearing something or getting it in a distorted way. Ineffective listening is one of the most frequent causes of misunderstandings, mistakes, jobs that need to be redone, and lost sales and customers.

So what is getting in the way? Well, many of us are preoccupied with other thoughts. Sometimes, we are too focused on what we are going to say. Noise or physical discomfort can be distracting. Sometimes the person speaking is giving too much information (TMI) and it becomes overwhelming. Or we are just bored by what is being said so our minds wander. All of these barriers can affect our concentration.

Active listening takes effort – that’s why it is called ACTIVE listening. You have to be engaged and not only show you are listening but also analyze what is being said. A tried and true method for good listening is the HEAR model which stands for hear, empathize, analyze, and respond. Use it to better understand the facts, ideas, and feelings of the speaker, and to help the speaker clarify her own thoughts, problems, and solutions.

H = Hear the speaker’s words and feelings. This includes paying attention to the speaker’s non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, tone, and rate of speech. Only listening to the words, you miss 65% of the message. Don’t allow other things to distract you or interrupt and try to monopolize the conversation. Avoid letting your own feelings, attitudes, or opinions interfere with your ability to listen.

E = Empathize with the speaker. Show the person that you really are listening. To understand the importance of this, ask yourself if you’ve ever been engaged in a conversation when you wondered if the other person was listening to what you were saying. You wonder if your message is getting across, or if it’s even worthwhile to continue speaking. It feels like talking to a brick wall which is something you want to avoid.

Acknowledgement can be something as simple as a nod of the head or a simple “uh huh.” You aren’t necessarily agreeing with the person, you are simply indicating that you are listening. Sit or stand so that you are fully facing the other person. Lean forward slightly and watch your body language. Folded arms or hands in your pocket can be interpreted as closed-minded. Using body language and other signs to acknowledge you are listening also reminds you to pay attention and not let your mind wander.

A = Analyze the speaker’s words and thoughts. What is the person really saying? For example, a person may state she is not feeling stressed but keeps tapping her foot. Analysis may also require you to ask open-ended questions starting with words such as “how,” “why,” “explain,” and “describe.” Rephrasing or summarize the speaker’s words. This ensures that you truly understand what is being said and helps the speaker know they are being heard.

R = Respond to the person speaking. But respond appropriately. Don’t assume the person wants advice. Instead of one piece of advice, consider offering several suggestions. Assert your opinions respectfully and don’t be argumentative. If you offer support, make sure it is genuine. Saying “I know how you feel” can backfire if the speaker interprets this response as condescending or paternalistic. Make sure the speaker understands your response.

Active listening is hard work but, it is important if you are to be a strong leader. Hearing what people are really saying will help improve your communications skills and build confidence both professionally and personally.

Webmaster: Ron Wauschek