All too often I hear or overhear a generic complaint in organisations across all staff in that they feel they are not ‘listened to’, ‘not heard’ or ‘there’s no point in saying anything as nothing ever changes anyway’. It is a common ‘gripe’ and actually comes out of the communication brand of ‘gripes’ that exist in all walks of life and across all organisations. Even in organisations that claim they have got communication nailed, it all too often rears its head as an issue.
Communication skills not only encompass being able to voice your message appropriately and concisely, using appropriate media but also being able to take in a message that is being communicated to you as well. Listening and actually ‘hearing’ what is being said or communicated are worlds apart.
This is because we all recognise that your job is hard. You juggle multiple priorities and projects. You manage a team of people with their own ideas and experiences about how to do things. You have to build a budget and then cut it again and again. You don’t have time or energy to waste. And losing a valued team member or key client isn’t good at all. If only you had LISTENED to what was being said to you!
Given all of this, it’s important to make good choices about how to spend your time and energy in any given day. What will you attend to? Solid leadership requires discernment, focus and intentional choice, that’s before we move into the ‘Good’ leadership zone. One of the most powerful skills to help you is listening.
Regularly taking the time to listen to your team, your customers, competitors and key stakeholders in order to maintain market share, keep talent and win when you are up against disruptive technologies and fast-changing environments is a must. But? How well do you listen? Do you hear what they are saying? Can you process what they are telling you and turn it into desirable actions and outcomes?
Most of us would have to admit that we don’t listen all that well. Some people are actually appalling listeners. Data from the International Listening Association shows that we spend about 45% of our day listening. Maybe it’s not our fault, though. Listening is the one skill most of us have had the least training in — if any. We’ve had much more formal training in other major communication skills, like writing, reading and speaking. So, it’s probably not surprising that numerous tests confirm that we are inefficient listeners. In one study at the University of Missouri, researchers found that, immediately after listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, understood and retained only 50% of what was said. Within 48 hours, that drops off to 25% efficiency. When you consider all that you have dealt with in work and at home in that 48 hour period, I actually doubt it’s really 25% at all. The reality of this in a real-life setting, rather than a university social science experiment is that it will be much less than this.
Clearly, when it comes to listening, we all have room for improvement, but the benefits of developing this skill are worth it. By becoming a better listener, you will increase your productivity and enhance your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. Being a better listener is about becoming a more attentive and active listener. In the US, this is often referred to as ‘Generous Listening’.
I’ve noticed in my years in senior positions and then latterly in CEO positions and now as a coach and trainer that people who don’t feel listened to tend to repeat themselves — over and over and over — until they get heard. This is the heart of employee or customer complaints that just won’t go away. To stop the complaining and the gripes, you need to listen and let people know that you hear them. This doesn’t mean that you always agree with them, but you have to make sense of what they are saying. This can save you endless hours and much frustration.
The Return on Investment of Listening. Can it be quantified?
American research following a four-month training program for a group of managers on “generous listening,” among other skills, participants saw improvements in productivity and increased profitability resulting in $162,482 in monetary gains and a 161% ROI for the program overall.
The reason? “Generous listening,” which is defined as a focused listening to the other where your mind and heart are open and curious, is often linked to relationship-building and increased collaboration. In other words, as a result of increased listening and understanding, people trust each other more and work together more effectively. We all very obviously want much more of this. In the UK we tend to call this concept of Generous Listening - Active Listening instead.
What does generous listening sound like? Take a look at these examples:
Scene One: A customer’s issue
Customer: I’ve tried to contact your company for the past several weeks. I keep getting passed around from customer service to customer service. No one is listening or even interested in resolving my problem.
The Response: Of course you couldn’t find anyone to help you. We’re way too busy here and we’re understaffed. It’s not my fault.
Generous Listening You: I appreciate your perseverance in trying to get someone to help you, and I’m glad you reached me. I am here to listen and fully understand what you’ve been up against. Please explain the whole situation to me, and I will do my best to summarise what I’ve heard. Then, we’ll come up with a solution that satisfies your complaint.
Scene Two: An employee’s issue
Employee: I’m frustrated. I just don’t get enough information from my boss to understand what’s expected of me. It seems like it changes from week to week like the weather.
The Response: I feel the same way! Nobody gets enough information here. I’m always left out of the loop.
Generous Listening You: It makes sense to me that you would be frustrated. I hear you that your boss isn’t sharing enough information about what he expects of you in your job. And it seems like his expectations are changing all the time, leaving you even more confused. That has to be stressful. How can I help? What have you already tried?
How to be a Generous Listener. It’s a one stage process
Step One, Mirroring
This is a process of reflecting back the content of a message from a sender. You essentially paraphrase in your own words what you’ve heard (but don’t repeat it word for word; that’s annoying). Mirroring shows the customer or employee that you are willing to rise above your own concerns for the moment and attempt to understand the other’s point of view. The key is to mirror back until the speaker really feels heard.
Whatever comes up in any conversation can be mirrored back. If the customer criticises you or your team, mirror it back. If an employee expresses frustration, mirror it back. If the person is angry, mirror it back. If you do this, no matter what comes up, you will maintain your ability to listen and avoid an impasse.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving
Choosing to listen generously to another is a gift you give them. But more importantly, it saves you time and energy in the long run. If you are listening fully you won’t miss a thing. No time will be wasted with misunderstanding or repetition. This is a wise investment of your time as a leader. The bonus is that it allows people to feel heard and seen. This makes it more likely that great team members and solid clients will stay with you.
Give generous listening a go! It’s actually not as ‘corny’ as I’ve attempted to describe above. In reality, anyone who has completed a stage one counselling qualification will have come across something similar to this as a way of immediately engaging with and creating a relationship with the individual concerned. Equally, in a ten minute GP consultation, your first description in answer to the question as to how you feel will be mirrored back to you to check your and the GP’s understanding.
Really, it’s all about building relationships, rather than just listening. Listening with appropriate eye contact and body language and then mirroring what you have heard is the basis for all good interpersonal relationships, and after all, all productive organisations are built on and succeed because of positive and sustained interpersonal relationships.
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