Most people will tell you listening is one of the most important communication skills and I agree. But here’s the funny thing- it’s the one communication skill for which we get ZERO training in life. We’re taught how to speak. We’re taught how to read. We’re taught how to write. But what about listening? Short of being told, “Shut up and listen,” who showed us along the way the steps for effective listening and HOW to perform each step?
It’s no wonder most of us are such poor listeners.
One of the first things we can all do to be better listeners is to understand the listening process and the steps we need to take throughout that process to make it work effectively. My friend Otis here is going to help us work through the process.
Step 1: HEARING
You’ve got to be able to physically hear what someone else is saying before you can actually listen to them. Luckily for Otis, dogs have exceptional hearing. Although your hearing might be good too, think of how many times you’ve tried to hold a conversation with someone and you haven’t really been able to hear what he or she is saying. Maybe it was hard to hear because your coworker was talking loudly on the phone, there was construction outside your window, or you had a bad phone connection. Regardless of the issue, did you just muddle through, only half-hearing what the other person was trying to tell you? I hope not. A good listener would take control of the situation by moving to a quieter place, or calling the person back in the hopes of a better phone connection. If you begin your listening process without hearing well, none of the other steps will work.
Step 2: UNDERSTANDING
Comprehending what you’ve heard is the second step in the process. Now I’m not saying Otis can understand everything we might say to him in a conversation, but he knows what the word cookie means and probably by experience understands that when his person says the word, she’s going to give him one.
Understanding for people is more complex. If you’ve ever had a conversation with an engineer when you’re not one, or had a physician who uses a lot of medical jargon when telling you what’s wrong with you, you’ve probably experienced a lack of understanding. Even if you were trying really hard to listen, you just can’t when you don’t understand. So what do you do to remedy the situation? Sit there smiling and nodding, pretending to understand? No! A good listener would ask for clarification, an example, or would ask the person to rephrase what he or he said in simpler terms.
Step 3: REMEMBERING
Remembering means storing information you’ve heard for future use. At this point in the effective listening process, Otis is going to commit the word “cookie” to memory, because he can see it, smell it, and knows it’s going to be yummy.
When people are listening, we need to take steps to really grab onto and retain what the other person is saying. As the other person is speaking, are you taking note of things you should remember, or need to ask more questions about? Or are you just waiting your turn to talk? If you don’t take steps to remember what someone is telling you, then you’re wasting your time and theirs, right?
Step 4: INTERPRETING
Interpreting is when you begin to assign meaning to the message. In the graphic above, Otis is reading his person’s nonverbal communication and taking cues from the fact that she has a cookie in her hand, to interpret her intentions.
When we listen to others, we should be doing the same thing. Although it’s important that we understand the literal meaning of the words we hear, we also need to take into account the speaker’s feelings, perceptions, and attitudes. We “hear” those by paying attention to nonverbal cues such as facial expression, body language, tone, and hesitation.” For example, if you asked an employee if he had any questions about the instructions you’ve just given, and he has a worried look on his face, hesitates and says, “Um, I guess so,” would you say, “Okay, great” and walk away? Not if you’re a good listener. As a good listener, you’d notice that the worried look and hesitation was telling you something. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the instructions after all.
Step 5: EVALUATING
Evaluating is when we take everything we’ve seen and heard and begin to draw conclusions so that we can take steps to respond effectively. To evaluate effectively, it’s important that we keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions about what’s being said.
Based on what Otis has experienced so far, he’s determined that his person wants him to bark if he wants the cookie.
In our scenario with the hesitant employee, we interpreted from his nonverbal and verbal communication that he might not understand. However, in evaluating, we’d consider alternative interpretations. It’s possible he does understand, but just doesn’t want to do the work we’ve assigned him. So how best to respond? Should we just run through the instructions again? Should we ask if he has any questions or concerns?
Step 6: RESPONDING
Responding is taking everything we’ve done so far and providing feedback to the other person to get clarification of what we’ve heard, or to verify what we’ve understood. Responding is probably the biggest place we fail in the effective listening process. We “listen” to what others have said and our response is “Uh-huh.” How exactly does, “uh huh,” let the other person know their message has gotten through? It doesn’t!
When we respond, we should ask questions if we didn’t understand something that was said or paraphrase what we’ve heard to ensure we’ve truly understood what the other person has said.
In our example with the employee, a good response might be to say, “I think you’re a great fit for this project Jack. However, I’m sensing some hesitation or concern. What are your thoughts?” This opens the door for Jack to clarify his feelings or express himself if he didn’t understand the instructions. Then the whole listening process starts again.
As you can see, there’s more to listening than meets the ears! It’s a true process and each step must be completed to make the process work. If you want to improve your listening skills, take some time to evaluate how effectively you’re using this process and where you can make improvements. When you do, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a great listener.