Effective communication is vital to the success of a business. Nothing gets done without communication, be it via email, reports, meetings or one-on-one conversations. However, the importance of communication is often not fully realized when individuals are building skill sets for their future employment. Sure, you can learn how to prepare reports and give good meetings, and even build a functional vocabulary of business terminology, but great communication skills include knowing how to listen.
Language Makes the World Go ‘Round
Language was developed as a means of passing information from one person to another. In modern technological environments, this is readily symbolized by the data flow within a network. One device passes a package of data; the other device acknowledges receipt and asks for another. Someone is talking and someone is listening. Shakespeare did a lot for theater and actors when he gave them grand soliloquies, but these impassioned monologues were merely internal dialogues given voice. The stories progressed when characters actually interacted with one another. Again, someone spoke and someone listened.
We spend nearly three-quarters of our time during our waking hours engaged in communication, the majority of which is spent listening (or should be). Yet we constantly disregard the importance of listening in our interactions with others, neglecting to fully acknowledge this critical part of communication.
A special report drafted by the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills outlines five core competencies expected of prospective employees as they enter the workforce. Each of these competencies requires functional listening skills in assessing and allocating resources, understanding and utilizing technological and social systems, or acquiring and processing information. An individual’s ability to listen carefully and interpret incoming information to make important business decisions is vitally important to his or her success within an organization.
How to Listen
The first and most important step in learning how to listen is to stop talking. Receive data from others. Acknowledge that you have received it, and if necessary, summarize it back to them so they understand that you’ve heard what they have to say. Avoid thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch or whether you dropped off your dry cleaning that morning. Pay attention. Make eye contact. Interact with them as they talk to you. Provide them the same courtesy that you hope they will give you when you are talking.
Listening isn’t just about hearing their words. It’s also about noticing how the speaker is saying those words. What sort of body language do they have? Are they speaking loudly? What are the ideas behind their words? There is always some implied interpretation of the data they are presenting. How does that inference color the information they are giving you?
Listening involves interaction. Whether you are an employee or a business leader, you want to be heard when you speak with a group or a single individual. If you are delivering a report to your supervisor, are you being heard? If you are speaking to subordinates, are they understanding what you are attempting to communicate?
Remember that communication is a two-way transmission: someone talks and someone listens. When you are the listener, remember that you are receiving information. You can certainly acknowledge and respond in a way that keeps the conversation focused on the topic at hand, but if you ask questions that lead the conversation off topic, then you are no longer listening effectively; you are driving the conversation in a different direction. Ask yourself if you are helping the speaker effectively communicate by pushing the discussion elsewhere.
Listening also builds community. When people feel that they have been heard, they are more likely to speak again. Employees then become more invested and take pride in an organization that values what they have to say.
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