Hearing Faster Than People Can Talk

Marshall Atkinson Speaking

Communication.  It is a critical component for success for any company.  Then why do so many companies I bump into handle it so poorly?  It is such as basic necessity you would think that people would be better at it.  One problem I see is that we’re so intent on the “next thing” on our schedules, that we aren’t present in the “now” in our conversations.  Comprehension is at an all-time low.  Here’s where building active listening skills in your company can pay off handsomely.

So, what is active listening exactly?  Active listening focuses on hearing what people are really saying.  It is all about shutting up.  It’s hard to do.  I’ve been studying active listening for years now, just in how I talk to people.  Am I an expert?  No.  Like anything it’s a work in progress.  And trust me; I have a hard time shutting up too.  However, I do know that these skills work for me and this is one of the main components we use at my company for employee reviews to improve our own internal culture.  You have to focus on how your teams communicate in order to be more efficient and effective.

Here’s how to become a great active listener:

Pay Attention.  You can’t do two things at once.  So, Mr. Salesguy (Yes, you!)  When you pick up your phone to read a text or e-mail instead of engaging with me in the conversation we are having you are not listening.  Actually it’s a tad disrespectful as it signals that whatever you are doing is more valuable than what I’m saying.  This will make you look like a jerk always, so don’t do it.  Being an active listener means giving the speaker your undivided attention.  Focus on the words that are being communicated to you.

Look at the speaker directly.  Active listeners can also pick up some good non-verbal factors by noticing their body language too.  Don’t be distracted by noise, motion or other elements in your environment.  Your job is to just listen to what the speaker is saying.   Don’t start framing your side of the conversation yet!  Just listen and comprehend.  Take it all in.

Show Off Those Listening Skills.  Conversations are two sided.  There is a natural give and take.  If you are doing something when the conversation starts, stop.  Turn and face the speaker.  Open body language is important for engagement, and not clicking your mouse on your computer, fiddling with a tool, watching TV, or whatever activity you were involved in signals that you are listening to the speaker.  After the discussion is over you can go back to what you were doing.  It will be ok.

Some other ways you can show you are paying attention would be to take notes, or even repeat back to the speaker what you have heard.  This should be a mandatory rule if you are in sales or customer service.  It is critical you get the message right, as your ability to take in information and process it for your company could be the factor in the effectiveness of other teams of people on your staff.  This is why they do this in restaurants; as they want to get your order right.

If you had an important phone conversation, a fantastic tip for ensuring you have heard and understood the conversation is to send a follow up e-mail shortly after the phone conversation ends.  This e-mail documents what you heard and any action items that need to be detailed.  Just use bullet points.  You are doing this, they are doing that.  List every important actionable item.  If anything was missed or needed to be fleshed out, this can provide the vehicle for that step.

Listen, Then Talk.  The natural part of conversations will, of course, have you talking sooner or later.  The hardest part for me is to wait until the other person is finished speaking, as I want to get my thought into the conversation.  Over the years I’ve resolved to be more patient, and just let the other person speak.  Pause.  Then answer.  This technique has helped my interpersonal skills immensely.  I’m still focusing on improvement on this skill, and the success is encouraging.  Try it!

When things are bad and there’s some drama, one of the best tools you can use to calm things down is to just listen to the other person.  Shut up and hear their story.  Completely understand why they are upset and show some empathy.  You don’t have to agree with whatever they are saying, that’s not the point.  Listening shows you care.  That touches us as people.  Listening is going to help deflate the tension and ease the frustration someone may be experiencing.  Again, if you repeat back to the person details from their story they know that you heard and understand them.  This is crucial when dealing with drama-filled challenges.

Don’t Anticipate.  Because we’re smart people we can sometimes anticipate where the conversation is heading and what the other person may be trying to say.  This is a mistake.  I know firsthand as for myself I’ve been accused of often hearing faster than people can talk.  I can’t wait to get my point into the conversation.  While you think you may know, and your brain will race ahead and start forming your answer, the reality is that something else is being said and you aren’t getting the point.  The active listening skill is about developing the tool to just focus on the present and not race ahead.  For me personally this is the most difficult part of this technique.

Slowing down helps.  Don’t think about that conference call that starts in ten minutes or even “why can’t this person just get to the point”.  Just be present in the moment and listen to the words as they are being spoken.  Sure, you may know something about what the person is saying, but if you let them finish you might hear a key new fact, or how something impacts them personally.  Don’t interrupt them and say “Hey, I already know that”.

Pause and then Respond.  It may seem overly dramatic, but this really helps with listening.  Take a short moment to make sure whatever you are going to say is the correct response, and then say it.  Ask deeper questions.  Have more meaningful dialogue.  Active listeners are in tune with the other person in the conversation, and often will pick up or find some nugget that they can use that will stimulate the discussion further.  It’s because they are paying attention and listening to every detail instead of being half-heartedly present in the conversation.

Body Language.  I spoke earlier about demonstrating open body language in a conversation, and I’d like to add a few points.  Your gestures, stance and how you carry yourself all impart meaning to the conversation.

Are you the boss and when someone comes into your office you have an entire conversation without looking up at your computer screen?  Whether you know it or not, you are being dismissive to that person and also saying that what you are looking at on the screen is more important than whatever they are going to tell you.  Sooner or later this may cause some resentment or other problems with your relationships with your staff as they don’t think you listen or care about them.  Just stop for a moment, turn and face them and be receptive to whatever they came into the office to talk to you about.

Do you fold your arms across your chest?  While this may be comfortable for you (it is for me too), this connotes that you are defensive and not interested in what someone may be saying.  Sit up, or stand straight, and find another comfortable position for your hands.  Conscientiously make a point to do this.

The best body language is to square off with the person you are speaking to, not slouching, with your hands and arms open.  Look them in the eye when speaking.  One tip that I use is to try to discover the color of the person’s eyes while in conversation.  I like to also watch their mouths too.  I find these really help me zone in on what they are saying and eliminate the distraction from any background noise.  And if you can, smile.  A smile always goes a long way.

Who Needs It?  Well, you do.  Especially if you are a company owner, manager, salesperson or in customer service position.  Developing your active listening skills can be a great way to augment your business toolbox for success.  Sure, it may seem a little dumb to be thinking people don’t know how to listen or talk to each other.  However, if you start paying attention to how other people engage in conversations you start to notice that most people are horrible at it.  Why didn’t that order ship on time?  Why did someone get insulted?  How come some of your staff didn’t start using the new policy?  Why didn’t you close the sale?  Maybe it’s because nobody was listening to all the details and something was missed.  Paying attention matters.

Homework.  Can you actually get homework from a blog article?  Not really, as I won’t be grading you.  However, for the rest of the day watch people around you engaging in conversations.  Look at their body language. Are they open to the conversation?  Do they look at each other in the eyes when speaking?  Are they paying attention?  Taking notes?  Who does a great job of listening and who do you think does it rather poorly?

Now comes the hard part.  Do these people work for you?  How do you think they engage with your staff or worse yet, your customers?  Do you think that this affects your bottom line?  Can you name an instance where something didn’t happen correctly because some details were missed?  Start asking why that happened and you may see that it’s part of poor communication.  We all can do better, you just have to try.


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