Mastering the art of communication

March 1, 2000
3M Dental is proud to sponsor the Dental Economics year-long "Mastering the Art of Communication" series.

Part 3

The Art of Listening

3M Dental is proud to sponsor the Dental Economics year-long "Mastering the Art of Communication" series.

Sandy Roth

Listening skills are significantly more important than talking or telling skills, yet there is more emphasis placed on how people say things than on how they listen. Some of the best communicators are people who have not only learned to ask exquisite questions but who have also learned to be attentive listeners. That`s because when people are truly heard, they feel it, and feeling heard leads to feeling understood and respected. If you agree with me that mutual respect and understanding form the cornerstone of a healthy relationship, it becomes evident that listening is very important. In this third installment on our journey to mastering the art of communication, we`ll turn our attention to mastering the art of listening.

It sounds so simple: listening. Just listen. No sweat. But focused, attentive listening requires effort and the intention to immerse one`s self in the messages delivered by another person without distraction or preoccupation. Skilled communicators listen actively rather than passively and listen with focused attention. When listening is superficial, meaning may not register and communication is limited.

Sometimes people don`t hear others because they are engaged in activities that mimic real listening but actually aren`t. Here are a few examples for you to consider:

* Finishing the thoughts of others. I suspect many of you have tried to communicate with someone who was so impatient that he or she finished your sentences. Not only is this rude, but it shifts the focus from listening to thinking about how to get the communication to conclusion.

Sometimes speakers are slow to complete thoughts because they are struggling to select the most appropriate word or clearly convey a concept. A good listener allows people the time they need to formulate their own ideas and communicate them in their own ways.

Thus, patience and courtesy are essential skills for a good listener.

* Guessing. Sometimes messages get blocked when the listener engages in guessing games. If you tune out the speaker to engage in a mind-reading exercise, you are not likely to hear what is being said.

Pay attention to where your mind goes while you are listening. Are you anticipating the rest of the story, or are you allowing the speaker to complete his or her statement with your continued attention? If the story stalls and you must guess what a person is really saying or trying to say, do so aloud by asking a question. This will force you to listen well enough initially to formulate an appropriate question, and it will likely encourage you to listen to the answer as well as involve you in the discussion.

* Selective listening. Spouses and partners frequently accuse each other of filtering or selectively hearing only portions of the message. "I did tell you we had tickets to the opera tonight, dear. I think you only hear what you want to hear."

Ask yourself whether you listen primarily for those things with which you agree or feel are important while filtering out those things which don`t resonate. If so, you may have to work harder at staying open and attentive to all of the elements of the communication. A healthy relationship, whether personal or professional, requires a consideration for perspectives outside of your own.

* Egocentric listening. The egocentric listener may hear everything but spends most of her mental energy applying the message to herself. You may have encountered someone who, upon hearing a story, instantly switches the focus of the conversation to himself. "Yes, I had a similar experience once, but mine was better. Let me tell you all about it." These types of listeners have trouble allowing others to be the center of attention, because they are not really as interested in others as much as they are in themselves.

Although personal experiences give meaning to messages, it is very important to avoid being singularly focused on yourself. Develop a genuine interest in others. Their experiences permit you to learn about things you might not have considered or understood. Your ability to serve others is enhanced when you allow yourself to be at least as focused on others and their messages as you are on yourself.

* Shifting to response mode. Many people automatically begin to line up their responses or arguments before they have heard the complete message. In fact, one can easily sense when a listener has already begun to rehearse his answer before you have finished your statements. You may have encountered someone who interrupted your thought before you finished by saying, "No, I don`t agree." It is clear that he didn`t give you the chance to complete your thought before closing down to your ideas and shifting to his response.

This is very frustrating to a speaker and suggests a disrespect for the thoughts of others. You may disagree with a message, but be sure to listen to it completely before you respond.

* Daydreaming. Many things compete for your attention, and you probably have found yourself thinking about something else while pretending to listen, particularly if you weren`t very interested in the content of the discussion. Daydreaming is often accompanied by a series of grunts which sound like, "Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh," while gazing past the speaker`s eyes into the distance, toward the door, or focusing on someone else.

If you are not in the mood to listen and give someone your full attention, say so. It is better to have the conversation later than to rudely ignore the speaker.

* Sabotaging. If you are engaged in a conversation with a person with whom you frequently butt heads, you may find yourself mentally debunking each point and dismissing the message based on your history with the messenger. The negative energy of this approach is highly problematic and does nothing to resolve the underlying conflicts. This form of sabotage can be obvious to others, and you may find yourself being disregarded because of your obvious bias.

Take care under these circumstances. You may have more to lose than gain. If the relationship has been thrust upon you, as with a co-worker, deal with the conflict directly so you can adopt a cooperative working relationship. You needn`t like everyone personally, but when two or more people are out to sabotage one another, everyone suffers.

* Changing the subject. If you are generally impatient or have a short attention span, you may interrupt the flow of a conversation by taking the discussion to premature closure or shifting the focus to another topic. When this happens, people rightly infer that you have no interest in what they have to say.

If you can understand why you are impatient, you may find the key to solving this listening problem. On the one hand, if you believe the issue is trivial and not worthy of your time, say so in real words rather than playing games. If, however, you have no respect for the perspective of the speaker, regardless of the topic, you have another challenge. Many adults are being diagnosed with ADHAD (attention deficit hyper-activity disorder), which often is demonstrated by short attention span and the inability to concentrate on events at hand. Each of these problems requires a different solution.

* "Yes, I agree." It is important to recognize the difference between agreeing with sincerity and doing so for other reasons. The former can be a reflection of good listening; the latter is not. People who placate agree with everything either to avoid conflict, to be nice, or to gain the favor of the speaker.

If you find yourself almost always in agreement, ask yourself why. If you automatically agree without conviction, you haven`t really listened; you`ve simply put a stop to the conversation. If you don`t agree - but either say you do or don`t speak up at all - you have voided your perspective. If you agree solely to avoid conflict, you have only delayed the inevitable. Be careful to avoid agreeing without conviction for it rarely leads to a better relationship.

Strategies for learning new skills

Listening skills are often reflective of other aspects of a person. Let me share an example. Recently, I asked a new client to profile his team, focusing on the contributions of each team member and the limitations to her or his full effectiveness. His response was one I have heard many times before. He began with his strongest team member, a dedicated, loyal employee, who is highly committed to the success of the practice and holds a key position at the front desk. He then told me about the three things which limit her: 1) she likes to talk and is a poor listener, 2) she has low self-esteem, and 3) she is often defensive.

I was not surprised to hear those three limiting factors grouped together. Indeed, people with low self-esteem are often defensive and, thus, poor listeners. In essence, they talk to show others how much they know in the mistaken belief that they will gain acceptance for their knowledge. Their defensiveness is an attempt to protect an already fragile ego.

The fact is, however, people appreciate those who listen well. They are offset by talkers who have poor listening skills. For the most part, self-esteem is strengthened by devoting one`s self to something significant and worthwhile - not from the approval of others. As I see it, this is a compelling reason to encourage a team member to strengthen her listening skills. If this dentist wants to develop his team, he will support her and others in learning how to become better listeners.

So how do you do that? The first step is to develop an awareness of your listening style. The behaviors I reviewed above should be helpful in this assessment. Then, the team must turn their attention to some strategies which will help form new habits. If you believe you are not a good listener (or if someone has suggested that your listening skills leave a bit to be desired), you might find it helpful to use one or more of these strategies so you can learn some new skills.

* Commit yourself to asking probing questions. You cannot ask a good question unless you have listened well to the content of your partner`s communication. If you promise to ask a question in advance, you will force yourself to listen well. Go on notice by saying, "May I ask you some questions when you have finished your initial comments?" Then, be sure to give your partner plenty of time to respond.

* Block your mouth. Yes, you heard me. Just put some barrier up. When you feel yourself opening your mouth to speak, pick up your coffee cup or water glass and take a sip. Physically block your mouth and force yourself to stay silent a few more seconds. This little bit of dead air time will often encourage your partner to continue and give you an enhanced message.

* Restate what you have heard. When you restate what your partner has said, you get immediate feedback about whether you have focused enough and listened well. When you restate a comment, use an introductory phrase such as, "As I understand it, you want our help because ...," "The concern I heard you identify is ...," or "Let me see if I have the entire picture. You are interested in ...." This strategy allows you to catch a misunderstanding very early and forces you to refocus on any clarification your partner conveys.

* Ask for what is not being said. If you have listened well, you often will find that your partner is sharing some parts of the story but omitting others. You cannot focus on what you have not yet heard without attending to what you are hearing. Force yourself to go through a mental checklist to review the key elements and identify the missing components. This is a great exercise in listening at a high level.

* Summarize what you have heard. When you get to a logical break in the action, use the pause to check in with your summary. It will help your partner stay organized in conveying information and will help you stay clear about priorities and content. You might begin your summary with, "If I hear you correctly, there are three things you want us to pay attention to: ..." or "If I understand the main points of your perspective, you would say they were...."

* Tell your partner that you are focusing on listening better. If your partner is a co-worker or a friend, you can ask him or her to help you learn how to listen more effectively. Asking is simple: "I sometimes find myself becoming distracted by other things when I listen to others. I`m working hard to change that. Would you please let me know if you feel my attention is wavering?" If your listening skills are indeed poor, your co-workers know it, and they will appreciate being given an opportunity to address your listening style and help you incorporate new skills.

Grab those eyes

In many cases, you are more likely to be effective when you are listening than when you are talking. One of the problems is our brain`s capacity to comprehend speech, which is four or five times the rate at which most people speak. When we are trying to listen to a very cautious or thoughtful speaker, our brains can get impatient with the speed of information delivery. That leaves a lot of "down time" which the brain fills by searching for something else to occupy its attention.

There are several physical maneuvers you can employ to keep your brain on track:

- Find a private place and close the door. If distractions are plenty, go to a private room and close the door. Turn down the music and lower the shades. Do whatever you can to minimize distractions and lead you to focus on the person instead of extraneous events.

- Face the speaker squarely and minimize barriers. When you are knee to knee, you are more likely to concentrate and focus on the speaker, so your listening will improve. Try to keep the physical barriers between you and this person at a minimum. A desk can be a significant barrier when you are on one side and the speaker is on another. Wherever possible, get up and walk around the desk or table, closing the distance between you and the speaker.

- Lean toward the speaker. Leaning slightly focuses and targets your attention, giving your partner the message that you are interested in what he is saying.

- Look directly into the eyes of your partner. My husband Doug and I recently took an acting class, and the instructor coached us to "grab eyes" with our fellow actors when we engaged in conversation. In doing so, we could not think about anything other than that person and what he or she was thinking. Try it. It really works. Grab eyes!

- Take notes. Note-taking is not rude if you ask permission to do so. Just say, "May I take a few notes so that I remember everything you have to say?" Almost everyone will agree, and it will help you stay focused on the message.

- Show your reactions. Nod and smile to show when you agree; look quizzical when you are confused. When you express your reactions in the moment, your partner knows you are attentive and really listening.

- invite you to practice each of these suggestions for the next several months. In our "Guided Team Meeting" for this month, Terry Goss and I have prepared an exercise for you and your team to use in assessing your listening skills. I invite you to make specific plans to incorporate these ideas into your skill bank in the next few months. You`ll become a better communicator because you will be a better listener.

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