The Hard Work of Listening and Listening Skills
“Marian, very interesting and quite varied. All comments proving that you get nothing for nothing.” Iain Duffin
Iain Duffin is one of the executives interviewed for the personal development journey study (results posted September 26-October 17). His comment brought to mind the notion that listening requires effort, but often people assume it’s natural and easy. As most writers and researchers say, hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is an anatomical function for most people while listening is a conscious skill.
I’m a frequent traveler and marvel at the cost to airlines of agents who mouth words, but don’t listen. For example, the other day two flyers had an international connection problem that the agent probably heard thousands of times. The young couple was flying to the middle east for some family emergency, she quite pregnant, wearing a burka, and not a native English speaker, needed the agent to be helpful and confident. Instead the agent apologized, said there was no way they could get to their destination within 24 hours of their scheduled arrival and suggested they rebook. The couple stood their paralyzed. Finally the woman requested that the agent look at other airlines. The agent said she couldn’t do that unless it was an emergency. Now I, standing next to the couple, knew that was the case, but the agent wasn’t paying attention from the start and went into automatic pilot mode. The whole transaction took much longer and was much less customer-friendly than was necessary had the agent been listening.
I imagine if I asked the agent why she didn’t pick up on the couple’s situation, she would have put the blame on overwork, or some other airline fault. It’s not unusual for employees to tell me their organization is short staffed. During this economic recovery that’s probably true in many cases. But sometimes the real issue is inefficiency that comes from acting before understanding. If they added staff, more people not listening wouldn’t solve their perceived problems. We’ve seen many examples of fewer skilled people accomplishing much more than many who haven’t been trained.
When we’ve worked with organizations to increase listening, and employees practice flexible and focused listening, there’s more efficiency because fewer things fall through the cracks. Rather than glossing over what senders are saying, our listeners:
- Ask enough questions to be absolutely clear about the issues and expectations
- Loop back to the original points made by the sender to check for accuracy
- Use different listening strategies depending on the style of the sender
- Over-communicate to heighten importance of the message(s)
- Be congruent with message, body language and tone-of-voice
To master all those listening skills, as Iain says, means putting in effort—every time and for every person.