Scene 1 – Sometimes you simply space out. Period. The voice of the other person muffles into a soothing drone and before you know it, you have completely zoned out.
Scene 2 – Aaha! You know exactly what the other person is going to say.
And boy, you have the perfect solution. Why not just speak up and save both of you some precious time?
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey
Listening is an art and a science. It may sound clichéd, but it is a timeless truth. The fundamental difference between hearing and listening is – hearing is an involuntary process of perceiving sound. Listening is a voluntary, intentional and conscious process of understanding the meaning of what one hears. But sometimes, we only listen partially, and then hear some.
Commonly, this typically happens for four reasons:
- Personal Barriers
- External Barriers
- Repetition Bias
- Assumption Bias
Personal Barriers – These refer to our deep-rooted likes, dislikes, preferences, prejudices, and general conditioning of how we look at the world, at large. Personal bias can alter the perception and comprehension of what is being said by the other person, into something totally different from its original intent.
External Barriers – The physical environment or the platform of communication plays an important role when it comes to listening. Remember that video conference where the screen blanked out, the teleconference where you heard multiple echoes and background noise, the group discussion in a room that was terribly warm or too cold, or the one-on-one survey process where you were in the midst of a loud crowd all around? The distractions and discomfort make it impossible to listen.
Repetition Bias – These are those déjà vu moments. You have heard this before. It sounds too familiar. Been there, done that. Heard once, heard enough. So the brain automatically jumps to react and respond even before the other person completes his or her sentence. Everything takes a template format, instead of viewing the conversation as a unique process filled with its own nuances and contextual meaning. Familiar aspects get picked up while important and crucial data gets missed in such cases.
Assumption Bias – here, assumptions based on past experiences or what one reads or hears all the time (even if irrelevant and un-connected) can negatively impact effective listening. These assumptions could include stereotypical perceptions, over-generalization, or glossing over specifics. Hearing in such cases, becomes more prevalent, instead of true empathetic listening.
This brings us to another point. Listening can be of many types. One such categorisation is Attentive Listening vs. Empathetic Listening. Attentive listening is listening for what is actually being said – including facts, figures and data. Empathetic listening on the other hand, is listening for what is not being said but speaks volumes anyway – e.g. tone of voice, inherent emotions, contextual analysis – in short, the meaning between the lines. Both are equally essential – as attentive and empathetic listening jointly provide the full picture.
So here is a quick technique (L.I.S.T.E.N.) for effective listening:
L – Look within to identify any personal barriers. Ensure they don’t interfere with your listening skills. Keep mental noise away and open up your mind to simply receive the information being shared. The first step is to stop, be silent and let the other person speak fully.
I – Identify external barriers and remove them. Ensure the conversation or feedback process or discussions are happening in an ambience that is conducive to a two-way communication process – where both parties get to listen effectively, clarify and address without any discomfort or noise factors.
S – Strive to keep an open mind. Do not allow past experiences, popular opinions, generalisations, stereotyping or familiarity cloud over your ability to capture data neutrally. Respond based on what has actually been said and your analysis of its unique context. Consciously hold yourself from interrupting the other person mid-way and demonstrate attentiveness.
T – Tap into the information you have collected and analyse it attentively and empathetically. Make sure you circle back to your respondents to clarify any area to ensure accuracy of information being captured. This demonstrates care and attentiveness and will make your audience feel valued.
E – Empathise with your respondents. Treat their time and inputs as very precious and make them feel you truly value their contribution. Summarise your understanding of what they have shared before you start to respond.
N – Notes are a powerful way to ensure you have listened effectively – it could be a simple paper notepad, an electronic notepad or a recording device. When taking notes, or recording, always take the respondent’s permission to do so, and share a copy of your notes with them. Notes allow you to refer back to the entire conversation, and truly dive deep into the analyses in an accurate manner. Notes are also a great way, to share back with the respondents the key features captured from their inputs or feedback, which again demonstrates effective listening.
In short, effective listening is critical to effective corporate communications. Your target audience needs to know that their inputs are valued and understood (not merely heard) and that responses are caringly designed to meet their unique needs, instead of being hurried reactions, or a one-size-fits-all approach. And the biggest benefit of effective listening is – it is a wonderful opportunity to receive great ideas!
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know; But when you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama