Many of us believe we are good listeners so we never really think about developing our listening skills. However, effective listening is a disciplined behavior that takes awareness and dedicated focus. And in the business world, effective listening is even harder to achieve as conversations and interactions move particularly fast amidst a sea of projects, meetings, deadlines, and business challenges.
Typical research studies show that most people spend 70-80% of their time awake in some form of communication. Of that time, most is spent on listening (45%) followed by speaking (30%), reading (16%), and then writing (9%). (University of Missouri)
Add to that, the fact we can think faster than we can speak. While the average person can listen to 550-600 words per minute, they can only speak at a rate of 150 to 200 words per minute. (Active Listening: Hear What People Are Really Saying, K. Fowler) This vast gap means that when we listen to the average speaker, we're using only 30% of our mental capacity, which makes it very easy for our minds to wander or to be distracted.
What Is Effective Listening?
Effective listening is actively absorbing information given to you by a speaker, showing that you are engaged and interested, and providing feedback to the speaker so they know the message was received. Effective listeners show speakers that they have been heard and understood.
12 Traits of an Effective Listener
- Listens without distractions
- Keeps eyes on the speaker to communicate interest
- Concentrates on what's being said
- Doesn’t pre-judge the message(s)
- Avoids interrupting
- Interjects only to enhance understanding using “what” and “how” questions
- Summarizes for clarity
- Reads and reacts properly to emotions
- Uses positive body language; head nodding, eye contact, body lean
- Listens for what is unsaid
- Allows for silence when appropriate
- Creates an atmosphere for unhurried conversation
Why Effective Listening Matters
To a large degree, effective leadership is effective listening. In a study of 80 highly engaging organizations, The Conference Board learned that employees most valued leaders who: sought out their ideas; were concerned for their well being; and, sought to build partnerships. Effective listening skills are essential to developing all three. By listening more effectively, leaders get more honest information from the people they manage; increase others' trust in them; reduce conflict; better understand how to motivate others; and, inspire a higher level of commitment in the people they lead. Essentially, leaders build better relationships by listening more effectively.
Discipline to Become Better Listeners
So how do we “train” leaders to be more effective listeners? According to Dr. Mark Goulsen, author of Just Listen, great listeners follow four principles. We call them the “Four Be’s.”
1. Be Present
Let go of multi-tasking and pay attention. Maintain eye contact and good posture. Be aware of facial expressions and provide encouragers – small ways that you can indicate “I’m with you” including nodding your head and saying “yes” and “got it.”
2. Be Open
Suspend judgment and avoid jumping to conclusions. Be aware of and turn off any filters. Do not evaluate by physical characteristics or by association.
3. Be More Interested than Interesting
Show interest through Inquiry, using phrases like please tell me more; how did it work; and what do you think? Make it about them, not you. And unless requested, avoid giving advice, trying to fix the situation, or sharing an experience.
4. Be a Mirror
Acknowledge emotion without evaluation. Empathize. Appreciate what you hear. And summarize or paraphrase to let the speaker know they have been heard and understood.
With a raised consciousness and commitment to developing better listening skills, combined with the right training and development, leaders can become more effective listeners, building better relationships through communication and information improvements that translate to more engaged, motivated, and inspired organizations.
For over 17 years, ECC has supported organizations in developing highly effective leaders. If you or your organization is looking to drive effective leadership, we’d welcome the opportunity to partner with you. Give us a call at +1.847.920.0190.
Susan Madonia, MS, is an ECC Partner and Executive Coach based in Chicago, IL, USA. Prior to ECC, she has over 20 years’ experience in senior leadership positions at several Fortune 500 companies building, developing, and leading successful organizations amidst significant transition and change. Susan holds a Master of Science in Organizational Communication from Illinois State University and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Organization Communication from Carroll University. Susan holds 12 coaching-based certifications. Her expertise and focus in executive coaching is on leadership and high potential development, visioning & strategic planning, executive team coaching & development, and executive onboarding.