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A Little Book of Listening Skills for the Workplace 52 essential practices for profoundly transforming production, profits and people AUTHOR: Mark Brady, Ph.D. PUBLISHER: Piadeia Press DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2006 NUMBER OF PAGES: 103 pages
Listening, being one of the most important things in business, helps create good relations with people. It is a creative act that improves as it is practiced. By effectively listening we open opportunities to explore our wants, how we feel, and what we think. It also gives understanding of who we’ve been, who we are, and who we will be as individuals and even as organizations.
Being a skilled listener opens our minds; this is why the business community needs good listeners with open hearts and clear minds. Good and accomplished listeners can create strong companies by knowing what transformational questions to ask themselves and to ask others. There are 52 listening skills that may help in becoming a better listener.
The Big Idea
52 Listening Skills Stop talking so much! To stop talking so much is one of the most basic things required to become an accomplished listener. During conversations in the workplace, observe who is doing most of the talking, is it you or someone else? The first thing to do is to notice yourself; this primary awareness is a good start. The business world is already full of speakers, being a listener will make you stand out. After awareness comes a possible array of options. First is simply to decide to stop talking so much. This may be achieved by asking questions such as: “What are your views?” “What is on your mind?” Another method of passing conversation is by acknowledging with a smile or a nod, this encourages others to talk. Create a culture of trust Effective and meaningful communication exists when there is trust. To become a skillful listener, you have to build trust. There are different ways to establish trust and the most common is to become trustworthy. You achieve this by always putting trust and integrity above everything else.
52 Listening Skills Listen for disrespect When a conflict arises, there are usually two things that come about. First is the issue, and second, which is not always talked about, is the feeling of disrespect that people get from another. As long as there is a feeling of disrespect, conflicts are rarely solved. The feeling of disrespect must be first addressed before the issue. It is because this feeling is the seeming cause of most conflicts. Listen for mutual purpose Lack or loss of mutual purpose is the second most common causes of conflict. Few conflicts will be resolved unless there is a foundation that will reinforce or re-establish this. Listening for mutual purpose is important in the success of both business and personal relationships.
52 Listening Skills Be slow to disagree, argue or criticize There is always criticism, argument and disagreement in the workplace. But when you engage in such behavior you cannot hear what the other person is trying to say. With this behavior you continuously try to get your point across and become less of a listener. Skillful listeners will allow others to speak and say what they need to say. Pay special attention to the need for control If two or more people are talking at the same time, there is often a subtle power struggle that happens. When such conversations arise, it is really an exercise in one-upmanship and competition for control. But if you learn to selectively attend to content and emotional tone this will allow you to hear the deeper needs that are expressed by the speaker.
52 Listening Skills Listen to be able to take unconflicted action Unconfilcted action happens when decision making functions are deliberately placed in charge of the “fifth brain.” The “fifth brain” is the part of the brain that consists of axons, dendrites, synapses, and glial cells that generate a magnetic field 5000 times stronger than any of the other four parts of the brain contained in our skull. Most of the time, vacillation between head and heart prevents people from achieving unconflicted action. By deliberately choosing to move executive functions to the fifth brain, you have better perspective in decision making by dissipating fear. This fearlessness is great for a business person in the long run. Get comfortable with silence Silence is critical to becoming a skillful listener. It is in silence where ideas unfold because people get to think. A listener allows others to discover what they think, feel, want and how one can be of service. In silence, you not only listen to others but you also listen to yourself and discover what it may take to perform more fully.
52 Listening Skills Don’t be an emotional terrorist Emotional reactivity interferes with listening and even damages business relationships. People who frequently communicate in this manner tend to justify their actions. Such way of dealing with reactivity only shows little understanding of the negative effects of this communication process. Avoid “shoulding” on people There are times when you simply give out advice. As well-meaning as you may be, advice doesn’t work. Inside each person is a wisdom that is more reliable, insightful and trustworthy than any advice from someone else. Telling people what they should do when they do not solicit for advice will result to interference with internal wisdom, or worse you will seem to be judgmental or disrespectful. A skillful listener will continuously encourage others to look at themselves and to take initiative.
Innovation value is the process that lies at the root of Blue Ocean Strategy, a book by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. Implementation of this strategy proved to be beneficial for numerous companies. There are six steps in implementing this strategy in any business. These are:
1. Reconstruct market boundaries;
2. Focus on the big picture, not the numbers;
3. Reach beyond the existing demand;
4. Get the strategic sequence right;
5. Overcome key organizational hurdles; and,
6. Build execution into strategy.
52 Listening Skills Establish support for speaking truth to power It is hard to talk to people who hold power over us. Skillful listeners know this and are willing to hear another’s truth no matter how distressing the truth may be. You must know that your power makes it hard for others to speak the truth, which is why you should be the one to initiate it. Refrain from ridiculing, blaming, shaming, or condemning. This will help establish yourself as someone people can speak the truth to. Regularly practice kenosis Listening is more than just taking in words-- it requires you to react in order to connect with one another. Kenosis meaning “to empty oneself” is a state for high level listening. A related meaning of kenosis is “revealer.” Listening allows the speaker to discover possibilities and see from a larger perspective. Another meaning of kenosis is “mediator.” Listeners often become mediators because they can help people see the exact nature of the problem.
52 Listening Skills Listen for opportunities for “executive neglect” Executive neglect is looking at what you do in a workday with an ear and an intent to discontinue things that are no longer critical. Listening opens the opportunity to know and stop doing things of low value, and instead increase doing things with high value or essential. Listening for opportunities to practice executive neglect helps check your performance in the workplace. Listen beyond perfection Perfection has been a prime pursuit for both experts and businesses. Usually the difference between excellence and perfection is small but there is a difference. By giving acknowledgement and reward based on performance and achievement, employees learn that they are valued for what they do and not just for who they are. In unhealthy organizations the job done never seems to be as good as what you might do if you tried a little harder. Life in such an organization can be very unrewarding. When you listen beyond perfection, you encourage people to strive for excellence.
52 Listening Skills Listen as practice of presence Presence is a result of listening to what lies at the heart of your work. Practicing presence is to live life in the here and now. It invites you to let go of your own convention and it allows you to maximize what it is to “be here now.” Good practices for this would be to try to talk to someone you normally have difficulty listening to. Avoid letting your story take over their story When listening, you often have similar thoughts and experiences that make you want to tell your own stories. You must resist this impulse because it doesn’t work. When you tell your own story, you cut off the speaker and shift the focus away from him. When this happens, you change the mood of the conversation to something worse. By interrupting, you imply that what you have to say is more important, even if this is not what you want to project.
52 Listening Skills Check for meaning Meaning comes from inside you. Because of differences in knowledge, attitudes and experiences, you often misinterpret others’ message. One way to counter this misunderstanding is to repeat and paraphrase what you think you hear. Be prepared to be wrong because this practice takes time before you can get it right. Listen for Six Sigma opportunities Six Sigma is a problem solving method for business and organizational performance. It was developed by Bill Smith and Bob Galvin and several other Motorola engineers for quality improvement initiative in the 1980’s. The 5 Six Sigma steps are to define, measure, analyze, improve and control. Always be aware of these opportunities as you listen.
52 Listening Skills Be genuinely curious Curiosity is something that can be learned and developed. Try remembering how it was as a child when everything was new and fascinating. If you see people with the same amazement, you become more curious about them and what they have to say. Curiosity creates sincere interest in the people you listen to. Listen for underlying needs Skillful listeners try to look for underlying needs directly or indirectly expressed by speakers. To be able to identify such need, you can ask questions such as “why do you ask?” or “what do need exactly?” Listening helps identify common interests. Almost all communication is intended to express different needs. A skillful listener constantly tries to listen for those needs.
52 Listening Skills Identify defensiveness: practice non-defensiveness When under attack, you often become defensive either by becoming silent or violent. When we listen, we can more clearly recognize the root of the attack from the speaker. And it becomes easier to understand the underlying truths of the attack if we practice non-defensiveness. Listen for differences In general, people don’t want to hear differences in opinion or way of thinking. Differences make people uncomfortable. Skillful listeners however will try to look for these differences because these differences interest them as it presents the individuality of each and every person. From this process of learning to listen for differences we begin to honor the special uniqueness of each person.
52 Listening Skills Listen for attachment style The first three years of life creates attachment that affects how we deal with people, places and things in the future. Outcomes of attachment can be classified as secure or insecure people. Secure attachment results into people who are positive, friendly, creative, outspoken, etc; while insecure attachment during childhood results into three possible styles: anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. Develop “second attention at the edge” Growth and learning takes place at the edges where the old makes room for the new, just as plants and flowers do. With people and organizations, we have to pay close or “second attention” to the old ways of being and acting as it is replaced with new areas of expertise and responsibilities. Mostly, this transition will come with fear and anxiety. Listening will enable us to connect and see such fearful concerns.
52 Listening Skills Listen for skilled incompetence Skilled incompetence is the thing people say and do that have unhappy consequences. This is what happens when managers or business leaders adeptly avoid conflict just to get along. On the other hand, competent leaders focus on issues, generate alternatives and create goals all in the service of managing conflicts and obtaining best results. Listen to signs of skilled incompetence for the betterment of the business. Listen between the words Listen to what is not being said as well as to what is. Research shows that only 10 percent or even less of the information is conveyed by words. The rest is taken from what is not said. Learning to listen to what is not being said is seen in the body language, facial expression, tone, context, etc. If there is something not being said, ask colleagues and acquaintances what they really want to say.
52 Listening Skills Champion the timid The timid voice does not bring out the wisdom in each of us for many reasons. Some feel unsafe to speak while others may just not be clear with what they want to say. Championing the timid voice is creating a place where people can speak truth to power comfortably. People don’t usually know what they think unless asked for their opinion; which often turns out to be surprising to both speakers and listeners. Listening for inconsistencies Inconsistencies are mismatches between what is being said in words and the content of communication. Skillful listeners notice inconsistencies. To address these inconsistencies, respond in a compassionate way that does not increase defensiveness.
52 Listening Skills Listen with a soft belly When we listen to viewpoints that differ from ours we often tense up and become irritated. Listening with a soft belly is to take slow breaths all the way down into your belly enough to push out all the air. By relaxing during a disturbing conversation it allows us to be open to new and creative solutions. Ask smart questions Smart questioning is an approach to solving business problems through holistic listening and thinking. There are three foundation smart questions: 1. How can we treat every problem uniquely?; 2. What purposeful information do we need to create living solutions?; and, 3. How can a system view ensure the solution we are creating will work? There are also four phase questions to the smart question approach: 1. People involvement; 2. Purpose; 3. Future solution; and, 4. Living solutions.
52 Listening Skills Develop methods for skillful self-listening Skillful listeners are able to listen to themselves well. Listening brings out the riches within you. A simple and direct way to question yourself is by asking: Who am I? What do I love? What do I love most? The two very powerful questions that you should keep repeating to yourself are: What’s true for me? What do I want? Asking these will help reinvigorate and re-inspire efforts that may have been temporarily halted. Cultivate patience Skillful listeners are patient. They are willing to temporarily suspend what they have to say to give way to others who have something to say. They can control self expression and let others continue to express their point. With practice and the understanding of the benefits of patience, a person can learn to cultivate patience within.
52 Listening Skills Become someone who can hear hard truths Learning to listen to hard truths stretches our minds and hearts to topics that are sensitive to us. They challenge us to control ourselves from negatively reacting. To become someone to whom difficult truths can be readily told, we must learn to express value and praise to such truth-tellers. In the end, we can develop the capacity to receive the gifts from such massages. Be mindful of age, race and gender bias More often than not, we subconsciously filter what people are saying with gender bias, race and age. Skillful listeners are conscious of these biases and they correct any deficits in their listening accordingly. We listen better when we listen to the hearts and minds of people and not their age, race or gender bias.
52 Listening Skills Break the “I” habit The word “I” creates problems by always shifting the topic to yourselves. Thus, creating a barrier in learning anything new from conversations. It hinders creative partnership, teamwork and finding new ways to fulfill other’s needs. The word “you “ will open up a new world in conversations that are limited by “I.” Ask specific, clarifying questions We often assume we understand what is being said to us, but more likely is that we do not understand these things in the way the speaker wanted to point out. First thoughts are like first drafts in writing, they require a god editor to clarify the intent of the text or, in this case, the words. As listeners, try asking questions to clarify these vague ideas and find ways to get the speaker to be specific.
52 Listening Skills Say what’s useful; say what’s true The approach of a skilled listener is to be factual, true and beneficial to others. Being a skilled listener is also being able to understand what others are able to or ready to hear, in addition to being truthful. Stop and stoop to listen Good managers and leaders know that it is more effective to listen to their subordinates at their own level. Listening sometimes works best when you stoop down to their level. The practice is not an issue of superiority, equality, or inferiority but more of respect and practicality.
52 Listening Skills Use intention clarification When in break of a heated discussion, ask the person regarding the intention of their communication? They may not be able to give an answer immediately but after a few minutes they will be able to tell you what. Inquiring about a person’s intention helps them get back on track; they think about it then come up with a response. At the same time, the listener is able to gather thoughts on how to further the discussion. Inspire and encourage robust dialogue Robust dialogue often occurs in a culture of accountability. Robust mindedness that originates from open mindedness and no ulterior motives sets the atmosphere where ideas can be freely expressed.
52 Listening Skills Learn to listen beyond your own filters Because of the way we are shaped as children, we learn to pay attention to some things and filter out others. As a result there are gaps or spaces in our knowledge. As listeners we must recognize that these gaps and spaces exist in us. Thus we become more open and compassionate to others and to our own shortcomings. Practice strategic questioning Strategic questions are asked to reveal ambiguity and open up other options and solutions. Strategic questions invite growth and new possibilities. These questions assume human equality and are respectful to people and their individual capacity to grow in healthy ways. They intend to support human personal and professional transformation.
52 Listening Skills The ears can be ready when the heart’s just not Things that we can’t face have great power over us whether we are aware of it or not. These are the taboo topics that we often avoid for whatever reason. What it has to do with skillful listening is that we have to acknowledge its existence and acknowledge that it makes you feel uncomfortable. When other people raise it up for discussion, they are most likely not trying to cause you pain. Don’t blame the victim It is common in many cultures to put the responsibility or blame to the people who have suffered. Blaming the victim removes our own feeling of being powerless. Practice not blaming by listening to someone’s difficult story even if you have heard it before. Try to keep an open mind and listen to new things that may come up, all the while trusting that listening is often all that’s required.
52 Listening Skills Recognize your own “exit strategies” Exit strategies are the things we usually do to turn away from situations that make us anxious. Any attempt to reduce anxiety can be considered an exit strategy. Skillful listeners learn about exit strategies and use it to overcome fear and anxiety that troubles them. Another reason to pay attention is to gather options on how to deal and react to these anxieties. Continually minimize distractions Eliminating or reducing distractions in the workplace is a requirement to become a skillful listener. Distractions both internal and external must be dealt with to become a skillful listener. Examples of both internal and external distractions are phone calls, personal concerns, ambient noises, etc.
52 Listening Skills Practice taking crap When someone is sending or projecting negative energy, do not face the negative energy head-on but instead stand up, move around, become a moving target for the bad energy but never lose control. It is important not to face someone’s negative energy with your own negative energy. This will prove to be an extremely worthwhile and beneficial practice. Learn to say “no” Saying no can be very difficult, but to say no is better that to simply say “yes” just because you are afraid to say “no.” When someone requests for you to listen, it is just fair to ask for time and think it over. It is only until such time when you can say “no” that people will believe that your “yes” means “yes” and your “no” means “no.”
52 Listening Skills Don’t interrupt unnecessarily When we listen to others, there are things they say that activate us to speak up in some way. These impulses of ours must be controlled to become a skillful listener. When we interrupt a speaker, we send out the message that what you have to say is more important than what the speaker is saying. By learning how to control our tongue, we considerably improve our listening skills. Give up the need to be right Many business conversations end up in head-to-head arguments on who is wrong and who is right. Skillful listeners recognize the benefits of not always having to prove themselves right. The insatiable need of always having to be right creates a fear of being wrong. Skillful listeners initiate, invite and help manage it for themselves and others as skillfully as possible.
52 Listening Skills Educate and engage in a culture of practice People work in companies for the company of others. We like doing things with people who also like doing things with us. We organize what is known as “cultures of practice”-- it is when people in the group reinforce positive behavior that adds to our skill. As we work with others and practice becoming skillful listeners, there becomes great understanding and appreciation to details of work.
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