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Listening - by Susan Hastings

Have you ever had the experience of feeling misunderstood?
Or misunderstanding?

Of course!

A recent study of 2,000 HRD professionals cited poor communications as one of the top six problems in organizations today. Another study cited the three greatest challenges were lack of communication skills, poor attitudes, and lack of experience.

So what is the common dilemma?


When I do a Needs Assessment for the companies with which I work, inevitably communications emerges as the #1 problem. And that, of course, affects everything else - customer service, team building, attitudes, leadership to say nothing of morale.

Most of us know the components of good communications: listening so that others will talk, and speaking so others will listen, including when we need to confront others, and win/ win conflict resolution. They seem rather trite and familiar but knowing and doing are not necessarily the same. Let's explore them a little more closely.

Do you know of any grammar or high school that offers listening courses?

I don't. And yet a study done by Dr. Sperry indicates that the average adult spends 45 percent of their day listening, 30 percent speaking, 16 percent reading and 9 percent writing. Developmentally that is the order that we learn these skills. And yet most schools teach directly the opposite-most time on writing, nothing on listening.

Is it any wonder that there are so few good listeners?

When I ask participants in my seminars how many good listeners they know, most people know one or none. Is it any wonder? Most people wait to take turns talking, not listening in any comprehensive way. And yet, if you can think of one or two people who are good listeners, how do you feel about them? Do you like them? Respect them? Want to spend time with them? Chances are, the answer is yes.

So what is good listening?

It involves several components and every other skill depends on it.

  • Attending skills, such as eye contact, matching another's body language, and giving your full attention are important.

  • Acknowledgments such as nodding your head, saying 'Hmmm,' and letting the other person(s) know you're with them is also good communication.

  • The door openers, a great alternative to probing questions, are statements such as "I'd like to hear more" and "Say more," leaving it up to the other how much they want to say.

  • Silence is crucial. It is such a gift to be quiet and let someone finish their thoughts without being interrupted.

Any good listener will do all of the above. It lets the other person(s) know you're trying to understand and that's important, but it's not enough because they're not sure you really do.

The last important component is active listening, or reflecting back to others how you think they're feeling about the facts of the situation. For example: "So you're feeling apprehensive that your job will be cut with the merger?" If you're right, it feels like Bingo! But even if you're wrong, they know you're trying to understand and it helps them determine even more how they are feeling, so it's a win either way.

After listening until the main issues are out on the table, it's then helpful to go into options for solutions.

  • What do you want?
  • What are your options?
  • What have you tried?
  • Has it worked?

If not, let's come up with another solution.

There's a tendency in human nature when something isn't working, to try harder at what isn't working instead of making a change. It's sort of like getting stuck in a snow bank-what's the first thing we do? Push down on the pedal. And one of two things will happen; we'll either get out right away or we'll get stuck deeper in a rut instead of calling a tow truck, getting some ashes or a board. Is that similar to how we sometimes react when something goes wrong at work? At home? Because remember, if we keep on doing what we're doing we're going to get more of what we've got!

On the other side of the coin.

In any relationship, there will be times we'll need to honestly confront another. It is not true that people would rather fight than switch. In a study done by TARP, it revealed that for dissatisfied customers who have paid $100 or more for a product or service, 96 percent say nothing to anyone who could help the situation but they would have a lot to say to 10 to 20 other people. However, of the four percent who did confront, about 72 percent were happier, more loyal customers, if the conflict is handled well, than if the situation had not arisen at all. So instead of avoiding confrontation, we should embrace it; confrontation and conflict, when we effectively communicate, actually increase good feelings.

Often, when we're unaccepting of another's behavior, there's a tendency to get angry and blame. Rather than to say "You're hopeless," a more effective way to communicate our feelings is to let the other person(s) know what behavior is unacceptable, what our feelings are about it, and what the tangible effect is that it has on us. For example, instead of saying "You're alwavs late!" say "I get annoyed when you're late because it puts me behind in my schedule." The good thing about a confrontive "I" message rather than a blameful "You" message is that the other person cannot argue with how you're feeling whereas they can argue about a direct attack.

How confrontable are you?

Do you create an environment of safety so that others feel they can express their feelings or are they afraid of the repercussions of their honesty?

We don't automatically want to change just because someone wants us to. When we give repeated "I" messages and they continue to be ignored, there are four reasons for this: they don't care what we think; they don't buy the effect we're saying it has on us; it's a disguised "You" message ("I feel you're being a jerk!"), or their needs to continue their current behavior are as strong or stronger than ours to have them stop it. It's the last reason that I find is the most common.

When that happens, we're in a conflict and traditionally there are two ways to resolve such conflicts: "I win, you lose" or "You win, I lose." How many of you like to lose? 1 have asked that question to literally hundreds of thousands of people in my 20 years of teaching communication skills, and there is not one person walking the planet that likes to lose. And yet look how often we are put in win/lose situations or we put others in them. It leads to resentment either way and ironically, the more power we pull, the less influence we have. For whom do you want to follow that you resent?

What is the alternative? I win/You win. How do we do this? There are six very simple steps.

  1. Ask the other person(s) if they would be willing to try to find a mutual solution. In my experience, I have never had anyone say no to that request.

  2. Define the problem. A problem well defined is better than one half solved.

  3. Brainstorm all possible solutions without evaluating - the "without evaluating" is the hard part but it you get into evaluation at this step, you will shut down the creative process, particularly when any ideas are shot down.

  4. After all ideas are presented, discuss and evaluate each one.

  5. Choose the one(s) that are agreed upon.

  6. Implement them. Decide on a time to come back and check the results.

Even the best contracts aren't always perfect the first time so it may take some refinement, but the advantage of committing to win/win communications is that it enhances both the respect and the relationship of all involved.

For more information on Communication workshops, ==> email Susan Hastings <==or call at 603-277-2955.

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