Effective Listening Can Be Your Competitive Advantage

By Mary Atchison


My friend, Heather, recently complained to me that she was about ready to quit her job. This is a good job, with a good employer that she has been with for several years. I was shocked! What on earth, I asked, would motivate her to leave?


She looked pretty upset and explained that she had repeatedly tried to talk with her boss about some concerns about a fellow employee. She said she would sit down across from her boss to begin the discussion, but her boss would continue working on her computer while they talked.


She said her concerns were brushed off as “Well, that’s just the way he is. Don’t let it bother you.”


“Why won’t she just take the time to listen to me? I just can’t work for someone who won’t listen!” she kept saying.


Most women are GREAT listeners. However, when we get overrun with too many things on our ‘to-do’ list, it is pretty easy to rush through conversations just so we can get to the next thing.


The problem with doing this is a) we lose out on some of the richness of our relationships, and b) we also can miss some of the great ideas, input, and advice that could help us be more successful more quickly. And, we can lose terrific employees!


Listening is an art, but it is also a skill.


Let’s take a minute and review the basics of listening. This may be a reminder of things you already know, but a good reminder never hurts.


When you are in a conversation with someone, it is not just about the words being said. In fact, it is barely about the words being said.


Communication is only 7% based on the words actually being said.


Yes, we hear the words. But to interpret what the person is using the words to actually communicate, we also base 38% of our understanding on vocal characteristics, and 55% on body language and facial expressions.


All of this additional 93% of meaning comes from:

  • Body language
  • Facial expression
  • Posture
  • Eye contact
  • Gestures
  • Clothing and accessories
  • Tone of voice, pitch, pacing
  • Touch
  • Physical space (closeness/distance, etc.)


If that is the case, then to be a really good listener, you have to actually pay attention.


One way to think about listening is that it is a full-body sport. It requires your mind, your heart, your eyes and ears, your head, your hands, and then the rest of you.


Your mind gets involved by actually giving the other person your attention.


This means quieting the other thoughts in your head and opening your mind to what you are hearing. This also means quieting the urge to formulate your response before the other person has finished speaking. When the other person is speaking, use your mind to picture what the person is saying so that you clearly understand.


Determine what you don’t understand, so you can ask clarifying questions when the other person is finished. Your mind holds you back from interrupting or trying to impose quick solutions.


Your heart is important because true listening means understanding the emotions the other person is conveying. Your heart helps you develop empathy for the other person, and an understanding of what this communication means to him or her. Your heart allows you to care for this person as a real human being, even if you may not agree with him or her.


Your eyes are important—true listening involves looking at the person so you are able to take in the 93% of her communication that is not verbal. Having eye contact and an open expression on your face encourages trust and additional communication.


Your ears are key to hearing the words spoken, and also the tone, pitch, and pacing with which the words are said. They must be tuned in to your conversation, and tune out extraneous background noise.


Your hands may be needed to give a light touch of reassurance to the person speaking or may need to remain still so as not to appear distracted.


Your body needs to be still. Any jiggling or twitching indicates impatience and lack of listening. Your body language must be open and approachable, so people don’t feel as if you are shutting out what they are saying. Nod your head occasionally to indicate that you are paying attention, and to encourage them to continue.


After all of that, and after receiving what the person has said, ask questions for clear understanding—make sure you are not making any assumptions about what the person means by anything they said.


Paraphrase what they said back to them and ask if that was what they said. This shows that you heard, and actually understood them.


After ALL OF THAT, then it is your turn to respond with your thoughts and feelings.


All of this process can take time.


It requires you to stop whatever you are doing and pay attention. When we are busy, it can feel overwhelming. On the other hand, it can also save you a ton of time and energy by not moving forward on false understandings or false assumptions. When that happens it takes time to clear up the misunderstanding and then start over.


Real listening is a time when busy people know to slow down to ultimately move faster.


And, it builds relationships and feels good. And isn’t that what life (and work) is all about??


Mary Atchison is the CEO of Yellow Wagon Leaders, a boutique leadership development, training, and coaching firm. She also works with family businesses and with workplace conflict situations. A former therapist, Mary has also been a leader in the non-profit, for-profit, foundation and public sectors. She and her husband live and work in Northern Colorado. You can check out her leadership blogs on her website.


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