Listening is a skill every technical communicator needs to hone. Too often when we speak, we tune out the other person before they’ve stopped talking and start thinking about what we want to say next, or think about something else altogether. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, and it’s a bad habit I want to eradicate. But kicking that habit requires a commitment, like running a marathon, not a single act, like a mad dash through a rainstorm to your car in the parking lot. It’s something that requires thought, practice, and diligence.
Here’s one simple exercise that anyone can do to sharpen their listening skills. After you make a point or a proposal, or communicate something that requires some degree of buy-in or understanding from your listener, stop and ask “what do you think?”
Four simple words, but the hard part comes after you say them.
Stop talking. Absorb what the other person says. Don’t say a single word until the other person has come to a full stop. Only when you’re sure the other person has stopped, say “now let me see if I understand you.” Then paraphrase what they’ve said.
I don’t intend to pose this exercise as an insult to the conversationally savvy or as a condescending lecture to those who are less so. I do wish to emphasize the power of four simple words, the act of willful, conscious listening, and a sincere paraphrase of what you hear. You’ll gain the trust of the person with whom you’re speaking. If you make this a deliberate practice in every conversation in which you engage, just as you brush your teeth a certain number of times every day, you’ll find you’ll become a better listener. It will become second nature to stop talking and take in what the other person says.
A side benefit of listening is that you won’t talk as much as you used to. This will do wonders for your throat and for the disposition of those around you. You’ll have more time to read and think which is good for your mind.
According to Terry Wildemann (see http://www.itstime.com/apr2000.htm#good for more information), a good listener exhibits the following skills
- Is always prepared to take notes when necessary. That means having writing tools readily available.
- Repeats the information he or she heard by saying, I hear you saying ... Is that correct? If the speaker does not agree, repeats the process to ensure understanding.
- Remains curious and ask questions to determine if he or she accurately understands the speaker
- Wants to listen to the information being delivered
- Is physically and mentally present in the moment
- Listens by using the ears to hear the message, the eyes to read body language (when listening in person), the mind to visualize the person speaking (when on the telephone), and intuition to determine what the speaker is actually saying
- Establishes rapport by following the leader
- Matches the momentum, tone of voice, body language, and words used by the speaker
- Uses common sense when matching. If the speaker is yelling, don't do the same because it will make a bad situation worse.
Listening is critical to dealing with customers effectively. In an article about Teaching Customer Service Reps the
Art of Listening (http://www.businessknowhow.com/marketing/artlisten.htm), Adrian Miller provides these simple tactics for effective listening:
- Tune out distractions and focus on each call as if it were the most important of the day
- Concentrate on what the customer is saying rather than thinking about what YOU want to say
- Don't interrupt; a customer's willingness to talk, within a reasonable time period, represents a golden opportunity to find out the problem / situation
- Don't jump to conclusions
- Become attuned to tone of voice and inflection; these can be as telling as the words themselves
- Occasionally repeat what the customer has said--it shows attention and comprehension
- Ask for clarification if a statement or objection is vague
- Create rapport by smiling (even in telephone sales a smile can be HEARD through the phone!)
- Take notes to be sure you remember the customer's key points
- Be familiar with common questions and problems and practice responding in a natural, conversational manner
- Control your emotions and be courteous, no matter how rude the customer might be
- Continually evaluate whether you are asking the right questions to uncover and solve the problem
If you’re interested in becoming a more effective listener, check out these additional resources:
- Listening factoids presented by the International Listening Association
- A comparison of poor and good listening habits at http://www.ccsf.edu/Services/LAC/lern10/listening.html
- Tips for effective listening at http://www.drnadig.com/listening.htm
- Listening skills provided to University of Minnesota students at http://www.d.umn.edu/kmc/student/loon/acad/strat/ss_listening.html
- Another take on listening skills at http://www.infoplease.com/homework/listeningskills1.html