Want to communicate effectively, avoid mistakes, and build good rapport with co-workers and clients? Work on your listening skills.
Being a good listener is a basic life skill, and a crucial one for career success. Good listeners are able to collect vital information, connect with the people around them, and understand assignments and expectations.
Variations on a Lyndon B. Johnson quote have become a popular meme on social media: “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.” It’s a lesson Benjamin Vance, CPA/ABV, has taken to heart.
“I’ve always spoken out, I’ve always been opinionated,” said Vance, a business valuation manager in the consulting department of Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. “Where I want to improve is on the listening side of the equation—speaking less, and really making sure I understand people before I speak.”
If you’re like Vance, here are a few tips to improve your listening skills from him and Charlotte Hamlin, a Greensboro, N.C.-based professional trainer and motivational speaker:
Use more than your ears. Good listeners make eye contact and watch body language—theirs and the other person’s. Research shows that people often pay more attention to body language than to the words being spoken in a conversation, said Hamlin, who holds a doctorate in human development and counseling.
“The overwhelming evidence is that it’s based on the nonverbals rather than the actual words,” she said. “You say, ‘Here I am trying to be real clear and put forward accurate words.’ But if I’m frowning, or I’m not looking at the person, or if I’ve got my arms crossed, it doesn’t matter what words I say.” Picking up on those body language cues can improve your “listening”—and also lets the other party know they are important and you’re paying attention.
Be an auditory mirror. Rephrase what you hear and ask questions to indicate that you’re paying attention—and to make sure you’re understanding correctly. This is commonly known in communication circles as “active listening.”
“Always double check,” said Hamlin, who suggests starting with a pretty standard restatement: “‘Am I hearing you say … ?’ ” This tactic has several benefits, not the least of which is ensuring that you pay attention in the first place—instead of just nodding your head while daydreaming of where you’re going to eat lunch later in the day.
Dig deeper. This is really an advanced version of active listening. In addition to making sure you understand what the other person said, ask multiple questions to really approach the subject from different angles. One simple answer may not give you all the information you need.
For example, “When discussing projection assumptions with management, their view on assumptions can be biased,” Vance said. “When you ask, ‘Can you confirm gross profit margins are going to increase?’ they’re going to say ‘yes.’ ”
Instead, try asking, “Why do you think gross profit margins are going to increase?” and let the client tell you why, he said.
“When they say, ‘Because the price of oil is going up’—and it clearly isn’t—then you have some dialogue to talk [about] and get a truer picture,” Vance said.
Eddie Huffman is a Burlington, N.C.-based freelance writer.
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