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Listen up – Practicing Active Listening

It never occurred to me that I was a lousy listener. Heck, listening was like breathing—I never thought about it, I just did it. My Aha! the moment came at C. J. Hegarty’s “Active Listening” seminar in the mid-eighties. His theme: Hearing is involuntary, but listening is an acquired skill. When it dawned on me that listening involved more than noticing noise emitting from a mouth, my transition to enlightened entrepreneur picked up steam.

In small businesses—where people wear multiple hats, chase deadlines, and move fast and talk even faster—listening better be a core competency. Imagine what can be lost or misinterpreted in a simple exchange between two people of different genders, ages, and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

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Five listening lessons:

  1. Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. These nine simple words, from the timeless prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, are powerful. Challenging myself to view things through another person’s eyes expanded my powers of perception and deepened my connection to—and appreciation of—others. It was further proof that empathy trumps ego. Another benefit: The more you listen, the better informed you are when it’s your turn to talk.
  2. Be a Human Mirror. We expect colleagues to hang on to our every word. Yet if we don’t first listen to them—so we can lock onto their communication style and mirror it back to them—we might as well be speaking different languages. For instance, if you’re brainstorming with a coworker who thoughtfully chooses every word, your brilliant idea might zip by her if you spew sentences at the speed of light. The same goes for decibel level; your pithy points may not register if you overwhelm her soft-spoken sensibilities with bluster.
  3. Value the Speaker as well as the Speech. It’s easy for people to tell when their boss is listening against them instead of to them. A dead giveaway is a wall he throws up—leaning back in a chair and folding his arms across his chest. No matter what comes out of his mouth, all they’re going to hear is, I have nothing but contempt for you and your ideas. Stop wasting my time. If this sounds like you, you won’t be crowned Mr. Motivation anytime soon—people are certainly not going to share all their great ideas just to see them shot down.
  4. Hear the Unspoken. Subtle messages flow through facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. That awareness came in handy during store visits when I queried customers about our service. I recall one typically over-polite Minnesotan who called the service “fine.” But her steady foot-tapping and the restless way she flipped through her magazine told a different story. I pressed her. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Anything I can help you with?” She paused, then confessed her car was twenty minutes overdue. Information in hand, we addressed the problem.
  5. Repeat What You Hear. Try not to ape the speaker, of course, but playback your interpretation of what you heard. Paraphrasing her message shows you listened carefully and gives you both a chance to clear up miscommunication. (Remember that one of our deepest desires is to be heard.) Skipping this step can set off a chain reaction of misunderstanding that culminates in dented feelings and awkward apologies.

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Last word

I wised up. I told the team that corrosive, vindictive behavior was no longer acceptable. I reminded them that our mission statement and operating values called for caring, respectful interactions. “Once Tom put a stop to that kind of behavior, things really turned around,” Eric said. “Nobody dreaded meetings anymore. We all realized that challenging each other in a professional way would help us all grow.”

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