Transforming Your Listening Skills From Back Burner to C-Level

To say our lives are extremely fast-paced these days is probably the understatement of all time. No matter what your profession, family life or personal interests, there are just not enough hours in the day. As a result, we have become masters at accomplishing our daily to-dos very quickly and very efficiently. But with all this hustle and haste, there is one skill that is fast becoming a lost art – effective listening.

Say what?

Simply put, effective listening requires you to slow down. You have to drown out the million other thoughts in your head and focus intently on the person speaking, what they are saying and how they’re saying it. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not sure I’d want my husband evaluating me on my listening skills at home. (That’s an entirely separate blog post!) But in the workplace, listening is one of the most important soft skills you can possess. It illustrates respect for your colleagues while helping to reduce conflicts and increase understanding. 

To illustrate why listening can be a challenge, here are a few notable stats from an infographic by Get In Front Communications:

  • We listen at a rate of 125 to 250 words per minute, but think at a rate of 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute.
  • Less than 2 percent of people have had any formal training in effective listening.
  • Words are processed by our short-term memory, where we can retain only about seven pieces of information at a time.

Listening tips to further your career

So now you recognize the importance of being an effective listener at work — and why it can be difficult to achieve that goal. What’s next? Below are a few tips that can help you enhance your listening skills. I also asked Karin Katselis, branch manager of The Creative Group in San Francisco, for her suggestions, based on her work with employers and job seekers in the Bay Area.

  1. Stop multitasking. Oftentimes, we are listening while typing, reading, looking elsewhere or even listening to someone else. The first step to effective listening is to stop trying to listen while doing something else. “The person speaking has something to say, and they deserve your full attention at this moment,” said Katselis. “Give them the respect of your undivided attention.”
  2. Focus on the speaker. This includes facing the speaker, making and maintaining eye contact, and watching the speaker’s body language. According to the aforementioned study, 55 percent of the meaning in our words is derived from facial expressions, 38 percent is in how the words are said and 7 percent is derived from the actual words spoken. You will glean much more by focusing on not just the words spoken, but on the person as a whole.
  3. Resist the urge to think about your response. With our brains hardwired to think at the rate of 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute, this may be the most difficult guideline to put into practice. “Many times, we stop listening after the first sentence and start crafting our response, so we’re not truly getting the full picture,” said Katselis. “Or we don’t realize that the speaker isn’t asking for a solution – they’re looking for a different type of feedback.” Make a conscious effort to clear your mind and completely focus on the message – before you start formulating what you’ll say next. 
  4. Ask questions. Even if you think you understand the situation completely, try to ask a question to clarify a point or obtain further details. This will go a long way in building credibility with the speaker and help show your genuine interest.

Improving your effective listening skills can lead to fewer errors in the workplace, greater understanding between colleagues and fewer office conflicts. If you can make it your goal to implement even just one or two of the above tips, it will go a long way to furthering your professional relationships and broadening your career horizons.