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We spend 45 percent of our communication time listening, yet few of us think of listening as an active process. Listening is an active and complex process that relies on more than our inherent tendencies. Strong character development, self-awareness, and participation in the organization’s goals lead to better understanding of information. Proper listening will result in more accurate communication and more successful personal and professional relationships.

To improve the overall success of your organization, start with perfecting employee communication. Listening is a major and often ignored part of the communication process. Focus on evaluating that aspect first and then move into other areas, such as verbal communication and product knowledge.

Organizations spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to improve employees’ communication skills. Unfortunately, verbal communication gets the fanfare while listening skills go virtually unnoticed. The importance of good verbal communication falls onto deaf ears since many of us are well-skilled in the art of fake listening.

In our formative years, most of us developed the art of fake listening. We learned to appear engrossed in the classroom and at home, when in reality we were daydreaming about other more interesting things. We got away with being average students. But, in business, being average is not good enough. If we want to excel, get promoted, or earn a higher salary, we have to improve on this particular problem area. Since poor listening skills could be the silent partner that stops us from clinching important assignments or a reasonable pay increase, we must break our adolescent habit of not listening and learn how.

Active Listening Process: We must train our minds to be perceptive. Active listening is based on the ability to accept information for discussion. If we are narrow-minded or sluggish, then we cannot listen actively. Understanding the active listening process allows us to master our own listening skills and to target our own problem areas. Think of the process as an outline, write it down and follow it step by step. When you deviates from the source, back track and re-focus on the process.

  1. The receiver listens for total meaning of the sender’s message. Often there is more to the message than is verbalized; by analyzing body language, eye contact, and verbalization of the sender, one can form deeper conclusions about the information presented.
  2. The listener forms an initial opinion about the information. If the information was well-received and it fits into receiver’s frame of reference, listening will continue. If the receiver is not comfortable with the information, listening may stop and active involvement may cease. Unless, of course, the receiver is a practiced listener.
  3. The receiver reflects the message back to the sender. This clarifies the meaning of the message while engaging the subjects in an intense and clear reiteration of the subject. If the reflected message does not satisfy the speaker, it will be explained again in more simplistic terms. The process will continue until the sender is satisfied with the receiver’s understanding of the topic. The ideal listener will not walk away from a conversation until the message is clear.
  4. The sender and receiver both understand the topic and engage in a concluding discussion in which both points of view are addressed and mutually understood. Communication could be impeded through certain attitudes and biases one may hold if one party is unfamiliar with active listening techniques.

Active listening techniques lead to enhanced relations and greater comfort in self expression. Supervisors are able to keep in touch with the opinions and problems of employees, which increases morale, productivity and professionalism. Being aware of the active listening process helps employees recognize attitudes and perceptions that may create communication barriers. Sometimes communication barriers can be overlooked since they are so obvious. For example, if employees complain or joke about an individual’s inability to comprehend information, that individual could either be unfamiliar with the job specifications, have certain mind sets, or simply not know how to focus on a topic for discussion, all which impede listening. If someone is difficult to communicate with, others may avoid speaking with him since more questions may be raised than answered. Or, if two colleagues have a communication block which inhibits their ability to get work done on time and to perfection, one party may be less interested in the job than the other and may be daydreaming about lunch instead of problem solving. Or, if one individual is so over-laden with work, there may be no time spared to listen to others’ needs and comments. In any case, with a careful assessment, employees’ communication techniques can be analyzed to understand how to conquer communication barriers.

Evaluate Employees’ Listening Skills: Recognizing the signs of poor listening is the first step to overcoming communication barriers. There are several reasons why an individual may have difficulty listening, but there are a handful of small flaws that become major problems if left uncorrected. Management with communication deficiencies can filtrate throughout an organization resulting in mis-communication throughout departments. Employees who know how to listen properly can side step certain problems, gaining the information they need no matter what obstacles are present.

Answer the questions below to target communication problems in the organization. If your answers do not resonate with our rationale, do not be discouraged. Many organizations have major communication problems due to the poor listening habits of employees. Poor listening is not always a noticeable problem and many organizations do not stress the importance of good listening skills.

  • Do employees ask pertinent questions to clear confusion and to stimulate discussion? Pertinent questions are a good clue to proper listening.
  • Do employees appear focused on what the sender is saying? If employees are restless or dazed, then they may have lost control of their attention.
  • Do employees respond at appropriate intervals or do they interrupt the speaker before a thought is finished? Interruption causes a breakdown in thought by stopping the momentum of the mind, and in effect, losing the potential of the idea.
  • Do employees sidetrack the speaker by changing the subject? Do they ask inappropriate questions, indicating they have not been listening?

Are employees receptive to new ideas? If employees refuse to break old habits, or allow negative attitudes to invade the work place, then improvement will be impossible. There are many reasons why we do not listen well enough to communicate properly and egocentrism is the most debilitating, especially within an organization. Often two heads will clash. Instead of brainstorming for a solution, a sparring match will ignite, eventually dwindling down with no solutions or progress made. Studies show that when listening, most people think about their own concerns rather than the speaker’s message. Our minds wander to more comfortable and amusing or troubling thoughts, instead of focusing on vital facts. Thus we become preoccupied, wasting company time and money. For example, we automatically tune out communication that does not personally appeal to us. By doing this we not only miss out on important information, but we damage our credentials by showing unfound bias. Employees must learn to leave their personal biases at home and view each co-worker as an equal and important contributor to the organization.

Sometimes You Must Do Only One Thing Well At One Time: Distraction is inevitable if employees are not in tune with personal and company goals and expectations. Although an individual may prefer performing tiny feats of self-adornment, such as reverse rotation thumb twiddling or cubicle spitballing, while listening, colleagues will perceive this restlessness as indifference, as well they should. While we are capable of performing simultaneous tasks, we never do more than one thing at once to perfection, especially when listening is involved. Being an active listener means listening 100 percent. Employees should not do anything which may distract themselves, others and the speaker, such as organizing their desks, answering the telephone, staring out the window, or tapping their fingers while listening. Distraction is not only caused by visual cues but by emotional ones as well. Examine the following subtle distractors to help formulate solutions to employees listening problems.

  • Stress: an individual’s participation will flounder if one is absorbed in other pressing matters.
  • Anxiety: rebuttal often takes precedence over what is actually being said, since the fear of forgetting looms within us.
  • Environment: we tend to be more interested in the setting and those around us than what is being said.
  • Assumptions: we jump to conclusions prior to receiving all the evidence.
  • Bias: we discount the statements of those we do not perceive of as important.
  • Egocentrism: we discard information that we do not want to hear or that we do not like.
  • Passivity: many of us are not actively involved in our surroundings.

Make Discussion Part Of Your Meetings: If employees know they are expected to comment, they will prepare for meetings, becoming actively involved with the material prior to the commitment. In addition to working short term, this process works long term as well. Persisting that employees prepare for meetings may disgruntle a few hard-nosed individuals at first, but the benefits will become obvious to all involved. The outcome will be a consistently more informed employee, superior internal communications, and improved production.