Are you really listening?
Updated: Feb 21
When I was eight years old (second grade), I had a friend, who told me she had selective hearing. Thinking it was an actual diagnosis, I went home to ask my mom what selective hearing was. She laughed and said it’s not an actual sickness or disease. It’s when whoever is listening only ingests parts of information from conversations, and typically, it’s what we want to hear versus what’s actually being told to you. Being a selective listener essentially means you’re not a good listener because you’re only taking in what you want to hear. My mom then said at times, I have selective hearing especially when I wanted or wanted to do something and was being stubborn about it. For some reason, it didn’t make me feel good to hear I was sometimes a selective listener because I only cared about what I wanted to be told not what I was actually told.
You might be wondering why in the world am I bringing up an anecdote from my childhood on selective hearing, and you might be thinking lots of kids aren’t necessarily the best listeners. Yes, that might be true, but what’s interesting, as many kids grow into adults and moreover, professionals in the workplace, their listening skills don’t necessarily improve…
In fact, most people don’t listen very well. Most of the time, people rehearse responses in their heads waiting until the people they’re speaking with finish up what they’re saying. In other instances, people interrupt folks they’re conversing with by showing acknowledgement to what they’re saying before they’re done speaking. Instead of waiting until they’re finished speaking, many people try to speed up their conversations by saying “I know, I get it, understood, I see your point,” before the people they’re speaking with finish their thoughts.
This post was inspired by a recent episode on The Skinny Confidential on The Him & Her Podcast where Ed Mylett was featured. For those who don’t know, Ed Mylett is an author, business coach, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker. At one point in the podcast, Ed brought up how much people actually listen and rather than listening, most people have their responses ready to go before people are done talking, or they’re interrupting people saying they know what they mean before they’re done speaking simply hurry up the conversation.
Ultimately, these bad habits adversely impact your ability to communicate with others. People are less likely to come to you with things if they know you’re not going to listen. I think it’s critical for us to assess our listening skills and find ways, early in our professional careers, to develop and enhance our abilities to make us well-equipped for the working world.
Rather than understanding people’s concerns, perspectives, or thoughts, we’re more concerned with sharing what’s on our minds, making sure we’re heard, or quickening our conversations to get them over with. All in all, there’s not much listening happening.
Despite not doing it often, listening is an essential skill to life, the workplace, and your career.
According to the Alchemy for Managers, good listening shows we’re paying attention to others’ thoughts, feelings, and perspectives which enables you to be empathetic to those you’re listening to and put yourself in their shoes. Good listening also enables you to build and maintain enduring relationships, for you show signs of care to those you’re speaking with.
Good listening skills is necessary to the following daily activities -
Transferring Information - If you don’t effectively listen to information that’s being communicated to you, how are you going to share that information when others when you need to do so?
Making Decisions - You can’t make thoughtful decisions without listening to the feedback of others who are impacted by the decisions you make.
Coming to Compromises - Whether it’s in your professional or personal life, you might need to compromise with your friends or colleagues on decisions that need to be made. You need to listen to their concerns (and they need to listen to yours too) in order to come to a productive compromise benefiting both sides.
Listening is a part of human interaction and an integral part of communication. It's a force. Interesting, right? Think about it. Don’t we move towards people who we feel really listen to us? We want to be around those types of people; we want to talk with those people; we want to share our thoughts with those people. We feel the folks who listen do us good. Being a good listener enables you to influence, motivate, and serve others since the folks you communicate know you’re taking their points into consideration.
Good listening skills are critical to success in the workforce, and they’re highly sought-after by employers because good listeners can tune into people and focus their attention on them and solely them.
In addition, good listening skills improve people’s abilities to -
Manage, Coach, and Lead - When you really listen to the needs of the folks you’re working with, you’re able to address their needs head-on, recognize what support they require, and determine how you can effectively help them. Given that you’ve taken in their concerns, you can lead people to where they need to be in mutually beneficial ways.
Effectively Sell - To be a good seller is to recognize pain points in your clients. You recognize those pain points by listening to the challenges your clients are facing and showing them how you, your services, or your products can improve their current situations.
Handle Complaints - When you get complaint calls, the worst thing you can do is talk-over the frustrated customer, who is aggravated by your products or services (trust me from my own experiences). It’s critical to let your customers speak, get their frustrations out, and outline their concerns. To come to thoughtful resolutions, you first must listen.
Determine Effective Processes - Processes can impact many people at your organization. When creating a new process, you have to figure out how the process will affect others and take their thoughts into consideration when outlining the process. You determine this information by speaking with all folks impacted by your process, and through effective listening, you compile their thoughts from your conversations.
The foremost reason for discussing this topic is despite listening being a critical skill for the workforce, there is a divide between students' confidence in their abilities versus what employers are seeing in their recent hires. In fact, LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, stated communications/interpersonal skills, which listening falls under, is the number one biggest skill gap in the United States. This imbalance impedes recent hires abilities to excel in areas of account management, sales, project management, people management, etc.
With that in mind, what can students and young professionals do to lessen this gap?
To mitigate this gap, I’ve outlined some actions students can incorporate into their everyday lives to make them better listeners based off a great article, “10 Steps to Effective Listening,” I found in Forbes.
*I’ve added some of Unraveled flavor to these actions items*
Focus, Focus, Focus - As a child, I was horrible at maintaining eye contact with people. I’d look at the floor when people spoke to me. I never looked them in the eyes. Why? I’m not too sure. It was a bad habit that thankfully, I grew out of. Maintaining eye contact is essential to good listening because it shows you’re focusing on the person who is speaking to you. You don’t want to be looking at the floor, or out the window at the squirrel in the tree, or the birds flying in the air. No, you want to look directly at the person to indicate your concentration is on them and whatever they need to say.
Be Welcoming - We’ve all had at least one scary teacher, who always kept their arms crossed and never had a happy look on their face. Did we ever want to chat or share information with those teachers? No! When we had to, it was miserable and made us all anxious because we didn’t know what to expect in response. When someone is speaking to you, you never want to be that scary teacher. You want to be welcoming to ensure the person feels comfortable sharing whatever they need to tell you. Of course, you want to be attentive, but you also want to be relaxed and create a safe environment for the person who speaks with you.
Don’t interrupt and don’t prescribe “solutions” - This action-item is something I’m constantly working on. When I listen to people, I get so excited to share my responses when they’re speaking, for I, at times, think I have some great ideas, solutions, or perspectives that might help the person I’m conversing with (trust me, I come from a good place - promise). I want to acknowledge that I’m listening by prescribing the end-all, be-all solution. However, it’s rude. Think about it. Do you like to be interrupted when you’re speaking? Absolutely not! It’s the No.1 rule we learn as kids - Don’t interrupt when someone is speaking to you. Many of us don’t listen to this rule at all. While the person is speaking, you can acknowledge you understand what they’re saying by simply nodding your head. Rather than jumping to your own thoughts, wait for the person to pause and then share your thoughts.
Remember, Judgement-Free Zone - When you’re listening to someone share their thoughts with you, it’s important to keep an open-mind and not let personal biases get in the way. You don’t want to formulate your thoughts of the person or the situation before they’re done speaking with you.
Ask questions - Once the person has either paused or is done speaking, you can ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand what the person has told you. I highlight clarifying questions because you don’t want to ask questions that lead the speaker astray.
For example, in the dining hall, your friend is telling you about their Spring Break trip to Florida, and she’s telling you all that she did while on vacation. During the course of the story, she says she ran into a mutual friend, who you both haven’t seen in awhile, and you jump-in saying you haven’t heard from this friend and ask “How is she doing?” At this point, the conversation shifts to talking about your mutual friend and her life while your friend in the dining hall isn’t done telling you about her trip to Florida. You end up talking about your mutual friend and never work your way to discussing the original topic.
The conversation takes a totally different course from its original intentions because of the question you asked. These shifts in conversations happen ALL THE TIME. When you notice your question has led the speaker awry and conversation off course, take onus for getting the conversation back to its original topic.
Reiterate - To ensure you fully understand what’s been disclosed to you by the speaker, it’s okay to reiterate what they’ve said and acknowledge that you want to make sure you’re understanding their situations or thoughts. The person can also chime in if you missed something that they’ve mentioned to you. When you reiterate, you not only show that you’ve listened, you’ve also shown that you care about what they have to say because you want to get their points right.
Body Language - It’s not only about the words when you’re listening. When you have a face-to-face conversation with someone, you can detect their emotions and sentiments and get an actual understanding for how they feel. Non-verbal cues are incredibly important because your next course of action, whether your a manager, colleague, or friend, may change depending on how you glean the person is feeling.
The goal is for students to really think about their listening abilities and determine where they can make positive changes to improve their skills. Our hope is for students and young professionals to adopt these strategies to communicate better with their colleagues and enable them to be more successful in the workplace.