Imagine a workplace where employees barely listen to each other. The pervasive misunderstandings, inefficiencies, and strained relationships are evident in the air. Undoubtedly, the burdensome experience for the employees overshadows any office perks or benefits.
This scenario is more common than you might think. According to numerous surveys, people-related issues, especially arising from communication challenges make the top of the list of why employees choose to leave their jobs. It is our basic human desire to want to feel inspired and valued. We long to be heard and understood. If these needs are not met, we will highly likely leave the job and look for other places.
In today's fast-paced and demanding work environments, we have observed many cases where active listening gets overlooked as a fundamental skill. Despite various articles and literature on effective listening, they often offer shallow how-to advice. To address this issue, we decided to delve deeper to explore and gain more profound insights.
In this article, we are going to share what've found and learned in our search. Here's a snippet: The art of effective, productive listening is a purposeful skill that requires discipline in its application. Listening with intent enables us to grasp issues from diverse perspectives, helps us to transcend our prejudices, inspires and motivates others, and cultivates trust. You can only 'truly' lead your team when you are able to collaborate effectively with them through effective listening. Only then, you can expect that your team will take you to soaring heights, beyond what you can currently envision.
Check Your Dissonance at the Door
Here is the reality: No one is perfectly free from bias or stereotypes. Whether you are aware of them or not, you have at least a handful of biases and stereotypes ingrained in you, shaping the way how you perceive the world. They can severely confine your thoughts, inhibiting you from embracing a more expansive and open-minded approach. While we try to bring attention to the oppressive nature they impose on others, stripping them of opportunities and fair treatment, it is just impossible to be entirely free of them.
This is no exception in the context of listening. When we have prior perceptions or feeling about the speaker or the incident, it can greatly hinder us to assess them objectively.
Consider this scenario: A highly-competent worker has been recently transferred from France to your office in North America. Her corridor reputation was great so you are excited to have her on your team. Shortly after, to your dismay, you begin hearing negative comments about her. It has been brought to attention that despite her manager addressing areas for improvement, she appears indifferent and unconcerned about them. Now the manager is frustrated, feeling like she does not want to listen to him at all. As a result, she is now widely viewed as an ignorant, stubborn, self-centred individual as many people in the office.
If you've heard a handful of negative comments before you engage in a conversation with her directly, it would be natural for you to approach her with negative presumptions in you. However, what if these judgments will only turn out to be a misconception, caused by cultural differences? In fact, this is a real case illustrated in the book The Culture Map written by Erin Meyer. In a French setting, when managers provide feedback to their subordinates, positive feedback is often given with simplicity. On the other hand, negative feedback is given more directly. This is the total opposite in Canada as well as in the US. North American managers tend to give positive feedback directly while trying to couch negative messages in encouraging language. As a result, when the French worker receives her feedback, she leaves the meeting with the manager's praise ringing delightfully in her ears, while the negative feedback sounds very minor. She 'listened' to her manager, but her manager thought she did not.
This anecdote teaches us a profound lesson. Failing to consciously check our potential dissonance at the door puts us at risk of missing valuable opportunities to connect with our highly competent and knowledgeable teammates. Clearly, this principle extends beyond cultural disparities. From the way how one dresses up to his/her snack preferences, you can instantly form your opinions, whether accurate or not, about them.
Without realizing it, our initial impressions are gathered in a process called GGNEE. We immediately notice someone’s gender, generation (age), and nationality (ethnicity). Then we hear the person's educational level and feel his/her level of emotionality. Therefore, we advise you to keep this GGNEE model in mind when you get to know someone new. By recognizing this model, you can spot the subconscious filters that may keep you from effectively listening to and reaching other people.
How can we at least put our misconception under control so that it won't blind us then? Our simple answer is we need to think about what we are thinking. We need to carefully examine the thoughts we've developed about someone and compare them with reality. Ask yourself questions like: Why do I feel that way toward that person? What factors of him/her strangely bother me, possibly giving me an inaccurate impression? Am I comparing him/her to someone I knew from the past? Only then, do we have a better chance to rewire our brains and create more precise perceptions.
Be Interested Rather Than Interesting
We all want to be listened to. We want to impress others by telling our unique stories, how smart we are, what we are doing right now for future goals, etc. This is a very common desire. At a social gathering, whether it's a block party or a professional networking dinner, we can always easily find people firing salvos at each other, trying to get the other person interested in them.
There is nothing wrong with it. Except you're not getting through to the person you're trying to reach. When you are focussing all your attention on what you can say to make that person think you're cool or smart. Unfortunately, this is a mistake. You've probably heard Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, one of the most successful business books of all time. In 2005, in the article entitled "My Golden Rule", Collins recounts the moment when he learned a golden rule from the great civic leader John Gardner. Gardener said to Collins, "It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don't you invest more time being interested?"
"If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet - their lives, their history, their story. ... By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell."
So we learned our second lesson: Don't try to be interesting. Instead, be interested. Why? The more interested you are in another person, the more grateful the person is toward you in return. As a result, the more empathy the person feels toward you.
I shall warn you though, you can't fake interest. People can smell fakeness from miles away. Try too hard to impress someone, you will just annoy them and drive them away. So how do we practice the art of being interested with sincerity? Think of your conversation as a detective game. Your objective is to uncover as much as you can about the other person. Enter the conversation with the anticipation that they have something incredibly interesting to share. Your genuine interest will widely be shown in your eyes and body language. Intuitively ask questions that allow the person to tell a compelling story. When you do that, make sure to be fully present in listening, without merely thinking about your response.
Make Them Feel Valuable
Last but not least, to really 'listen to other people' so that you genuinely 'connect' with them, you need to make people feel valuable.
Let me clarify first. Making people feel valuable is different from making them feel interesting. When you're interested in someone, you give them a chance to share their stories willingly, like handing them the microphone. On the other hand, making someone feel valuable means making them feel important. It's like telling them they truly matter, and there's a strong reason why they are there, making a difference. Both aspects are essential for effective communication and building strong relationships. The act of making someone feel valued reaches the depths of the heart. Irrespective of their status, be it a newly hired employee or the CEO, from recent college graduates to retirees, every individual craves to be acknowledged and cherished. We all are desired to be appreciated and esteemed.
You might consider this approach as common sense, and it may seem evident that it would be effective. Let me warn you, practicing this will require you of a high level of humility. Why? Because you'll need to make a special effort to make everyone feel important, even those you may not like very much. Think of someone in your office you find the least appealing. How can you make him/her feel valuable? Would you be willing to go the extra mile to gain his/her heart? As a leader, it's both our responsibility and a privilege to make extra efforts to unite the team.
Good communication starts with good listening. Listening carefully helps avoid misunderstandings and fights. When you show that you truly care about what others have to say, it builds trust and a good relationship with them.
Sometimes, people mix up effective listening with simply hearing what others say. However, effective listening is a special skill that needs to be learned and practiced. It's not something that happens automatically. To get better at it, we have to work hard, practice regularly, and learn to discipline ourselves while listening. We are confident that in the end, not only will your influence grow, but you will also leave an unforgettable legacy that positively impacts others.