Put your ears in gear before your mouth is in motion

If you've ever had the good fortune of knowing a truly wonderful person-- a leader, a close friend, a co-worker-- chances are they were a great listener. Listening is a skill we usually take for granted, and yet it takes a conscious effort to develop. Although some people seem to come by the skill instinctively, most of us complain about not being listened to but spend little time developing the skill ourselves.

If you are guilty of having your mouth in motion before your ears are in gear, you're not alone. In fact, most communication problems can be traced back to misunderstandings and false assumptions-all stemming from poor listening. On the flip side of the problem is the talker who doesn't take time to check back and make sure listening and understanding took place.

Skillful communicators know that the key is to seek first to understand-before seeking to be understood. Not only does this build trust and respect, it draws out the other person and makes him or her feel respected and valued. Haven't you ever walked away from a great listener saying to yourself, "What a great guy!" when, in fact, all he did was listen to you go on and on?

Here are some tips that will increase your effectiveness as a listener:

Restate What They Said
This encourages them to go into more detail. It's also useful if you want to neutralize a negative remark. For example, "That's a dumb idea that will never fly!" could be restated as "You think this is idea is impractical." It takes out the sting and keeps the focus on their point. It also encourages them to explain.

Summarize What They Said
This is another handy skill that skillful leaders use. They use it in meetings to rope in someone who is wandering off the subject. "So your main point is you think we should..." They also use it to keep track of where they are in a meeting. "We've identified the reasons we need to change this policy. They are..." It's also very useful in daily conversations to make sure you understand what someone just said.

Paraphrasing What They Said
Now it gets tougher. An expert listener knows the value of paraphrasing because they realize people often don't express in words what they're feeling and they need to be drawn out. If you are a good paraphraser, you know how to put in your own words not only what they said but also the meaning behind the words.

Paraphrasing is a key tool for neutralizing a loaded attack. It makes the person feel understood. For instance, "She's on the phone talking to her friends while I'm stuck doing her work!" might be paraphrased as "You think she is getting away with poor performance and you're not appreciated for all you're doing to contribute to the team's results."

One of the unspoken rules about paraphrasing is that you have to wait until the person says something like, "Yes, that's exactly what I mean." If you don't hear that, you can't be sure you understood. Even if you don't guess their meaning correctly, they'll correct you and you'll be able to paraphrase again until you get it right. The other person will be grateful for your effort.

Empathetic Listing
There is a big difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy helps you to walk in the other person's shoes and understand "with" them. Sympathy is feeling sorry "for" them.

Empathy is a combination of paraphrasing what they said along with how you think they feel. Empathy isn't just for social workers and human resource specialists; empathy can be a powerful skill for leaders of any kind. It helps to reduce the emotion of a situation, makes the person feel heard and, in turn, ready to listen to others and solve the problem.

One of the most commonly misunderstood things about empathy is this: expressing empathy doesn't necessarily mean you agree with the other person. It means you want them to know you are trying to understand how they feel.

For instance, if an employee is complaining about a customer, the boss might be tempted to say that the customer is "always right" and a good employee shouldn't be complaining. Of course the employee won't feel understood and will be angry at their boss's insensitivity. Instead of focusing energy on solving the problem they now are angry with the customer and the boss.

Another approach is to say, "I can understand why that customer made you angry. He didn't listen to your instructions and he implied you were lying. I can see why you'd be upset. As you know we can't control our customers' behavior; we can only do everything we can to give them good service. Let's talk about how you could approach situations like this in the future." The employee is now much more willing to find ways to deal with the situation because she feels heard and understood and the manager is seen as a coach.

Listening skills are becoming more important as employees at all levels face rapid change and uncertain times. Sharpening your skills can pay rich dividends now and in your future in all areas of your life.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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