4 Tips to Improve Your Listening Skills

As a technology professional, you probably think you have good listening skills. After all, people in the organization are always coming to you to discuss their technology problems. And if you didn't hear what they were saying to you, you couldn't help solve their issues, right?

Well, it may not be that simple. There's the act of listening, but there's also the art of listening, known as "active listening." Knowing the difference can have a significant impact on whether you get ahead in your IT career.

This is especially true if your goal is a leadership position. Just read through the job descriptions in Robert Half Technology's 2015 Salary Guide and you'll find most positions, including the most senior level, specifically state the need for outstanding communication skills. This is largely because technology professionals are now required to interact directly with many different people, both inside and outside of the organization.

But the intensifying spotlight on communication skills has many IT pros feeling a bit exposed. They've spent years refining their technical expertise because that's what the business demanded - and have thus given little time or effort to polishing their listening skills.

If this describes you, how can you become better at active listening? Here are some tips:

  • Be present. Truly hearing what someone has to say requires your full attention. There are so many distractions in the office - many of them tech-related, ironically, like instant messaging and email - that you almost can't help but half-listen to anyone who speaks to you, whether it's in person or by phone. But do what you can to practice active listening by bringing yourself fully into the conversation, so you can concentrate on the message that's being imparted to you. (This includes meetings, too, when you may often feel tempted to glance at your smartphone repeatedly.)
  • Empathize. Admit it – when the technology you use doesn't work properly, you get frustrated. So, don't be so quick to dismiss or become annoyed with others when they vent to you about their IT woes. You're the person they need to contact for assistance, so of course they're going to look to you to be their calm in the storm. Dealing with people who are not tech-savvy may require even more active listening, especially when they come to you with some sincere but odd requests.
  • Notice the nuances. Understanding nonverbal cues is another part of active listening: Good listeners will sense what is not being said as well as what is verbalized. Learning how to read physical cues, such as facial expressions, or how to catch subtle changes in a person's speaking tone takes practice. But these listening skills will not only will help you resolve problems faster, but also, diffuse situations before they take an unpleasant turn.
  • Don't interrupt – and get clarification. Giving someone your undivided attention shows respect, and can have a positive impact on your entire exchange. It also means you're less likely to misunderstand, or simply miss, what the person is saying to you. Of course, it's easy to become impatient when a customer is telling you about a problem you already know the solution for before they've finished speaking. But part of active listening means you need to let them complete their full "download" to you before you respond. If the person does get a little long-winded, wait for an appropriate moment to interject. And if the problem requires further action on your part, make sure to repeat back what the person said to confirm you understand the issue and what you must do.

Tune in to your teammates

IT departments are typically fast-paced with intense workloads, leaving little time for technology personnel to engage in meaningful dialog with each other. However, make a point not to become so absorbed in your work that you constantly miss, or only half absorb, what others on your immediate team are saying. Otherwise, you may miss opportunities to learn valuable information that will allow you to work more efficiently, find solutions to problems quickly, and perhaps even identify issues before they worsen.

Also, remember that good listening skills apply when communicating with others beyond in-person or phone conversations. For more insight on communications skills and digital protocols for popular tools such as email and text messages, check out Robert Half's guide, Business Etiquette: New Rules for a Digital Age. Even the most tech-savvy people can benefit from learning how to keep the human factor in all of their business communications.