Published: January 4, 2013
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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The #1 Change to Make in 2013

O.k., Everybody – Listen Up!

Actually, I mean it. It’s the #1 change you can make in 2013 to dramatically improve in any area of your life that involves other people.

Think about it. There are only four ways to communicate that involve language: writing, reading, speaking, and listening.

How much education did you receive on how to write? A lot.

How much education did you receive on how to read? A lot.

What about speaking? I bet you received least some education – the dreaded Speech Communication 101 class in college.

Now think back and remember how much education you received on listening. For most leaders, it’s a big goose egg and, not surprisingly, most of us are lousy listeners most of the time.

Yet it’s only through effective listening that we understand where another person is coming from, and stop our own assumptions from twisting and distorting what he or she is saying to fit our preconceived notions. In fact, I will go so far as to assert that you are incapable of maintaining a decent level of objectivity unless you listen. After all, how can you be objective if you’re not hearing data?

Think of your ears as being like flabby muscles. They’re fully capable of doing the job. They just need to get in better shape. Take it in baby steps, and you’ll become a fit and strong listener.

Here are my 12 favorite techniques to become a better listener, one for each month of 2013:

January: Minimize distractions. Turn off the phone, put the laptop in sleep mode, turn off the ringer on your phone, and put the tablet in a drawer if you can’t stop looking at it.

February: Welcome the other person. You don’t need to do this formally, though you can if it suits you. Smile (even if it’s a phone meeting), stop what you are doing, and if it’s an in-person meeting, ask him or her to sit down.

March: Focus. Look at the speaker, or imagine the speaker’s face if you are on the phone. Maintain eye contact. Concentrate on what he or she is saying.

April: Suspend judgment.Don’t think about whether you agree or disagree while the person is still talking. This leads to thinking about what you will say in response while the other person is talking, which is the opposite of listening.  If you feel your mind formulating a response while he or she is still talking, bring your attention back and say, “Could you repeat that?”

May: Ask questions to draw out observable data. Observable data is exactly as it sounds – data that is concrete and can be observed. This does not include interpretations or opinions.

June: Ask questions to understand his or her logic and reasoning. Two people often look at the same data and draw different conclusions. Poor listeners don’t bother to draw out the other person’s logic and reasoning. They just argue. Great listeners seek to understand the other person’s logic and reasoning as a means to constantly test and develop their own logic and reasoning.

July: Listen for the subjective elements. Subjective data includes interpretation, hunches, values, and even feelings. Don’t confuse the need to make data-driven decisions with refusing to hear subjective data. Leaders are often required make decisions for which you will never have all the objective data you need. The ability to combine the subjective with the objective to inform an excellent decision is called good judgment, and it’s what you’re getting paid for. Don’t turn the subjective into a villain. Invite it in to every conversation.

August: Remain silent for a few seconds longer than is comfortable.I confess that I’m working on this one myself! It’s probably a bigger challenge for Extraverts, but it’s worth doing, because silence often encourages the other person to continue sharing.

September: Repeat the last word or main point as a question. If the other person says, “The gross margin demands are unreasonable” then say, “Unreasonable?” and nothing more. It’s an easy technique to practice, and a simple way to invite the other person to share both subjective and objective data.

October: Use clean inquiries. Let’s say your team has made a strategic decision to end production of several custom products after the current contracts are honored, because the margins are too low and the products aren’t aligned with your long-term strategy. A month later, a team member furrows her brow and says, “We have a lot of idle machines this month. Do you think I should approach the buyer on this account to see if he wants to do one more run?” An unclean inquiry would be, “I THOUGHT we agreed to DISCONTINUE this custom product, didn’t we?” It’s an accusation thinly disguised as a question, which is a filthy dirty inquiry. A clean inquiry would be, “I’m concerned because that seems to me to go against our decision. What’s behind your thinking on this?” Clean inquiries are valuable beyond measure when you feel your emotions start to rise.

November: Confirm understanding. Also known as paraphrasing, this technique ensures that you really do understand what the other person has been trying to tell you. You can keep it simple by just paraphrasing. For example, “So you believe that we can accrue goodwill points by running one more low-margin order while we’re negotiating with them for the order that’s aligned with our long-term strategy. Is that correct?” Alternately, you can introduce your paraphrasing using phrases such as, “So the main point you’d like me to understand is…” Confirming understanding will save you hundreds of hours of wasted time due to hidden misalignments and misinterpretations.

December: Close the conversation. All of the effort to really hear what the other person is saying will not pay off if you forget to share your perspectives, confirm areas of agreement or disagreement, and decide on next steps.

Remember to take it in baby steps, adding one technique to your listening arsenal every month. By 2014, you’ll be one of the best listeners in your organization, and you’ll reap the rewards of better collaboration, higher trust, and improved teamwork.



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