I teach communication at private university in Nashville, TN. My students just finished their final exams for the semester. About two weeks before the end of the class, I started taking the first few minutes of each class to review what would be on the final. We went over the exam schedule, the format of the test, and how to prepare at least three separate times. On the last day of class, one of my students raised his hand and asked, “Can you tell us what to expect for the final?” I was flabbergasted. Several other students rolled their eyes at his question, and I took comfort in their nonverbal support of my frustration. One of the most frustrating things about being a professor or a parent or a human is having to repeat myself. I sometimes wonder, is anyone listening? I’m aware that this isn’t unique to my profession or to my experience. I trust that you have thought the same thing many times as well. Is anyone listening?
In the Presentation Mentor blog, we talk a lot about, well, talking. But we know that talking is only part of the communication process. Presenters need audience members, senders need receivers, and speakers need listeners. So it’s high time we discuss the other part of communication, listening. In the first part of this two-part series, we’ll discuss listening in typical conversation. Below are three ways we can work to improve this crucial skill.
Listen to Understand
It is estimated that companies worldwide lose an estimated $37 billion each year due to misunderstandings. That’s a lot of money that could be saved with improved communication and listening skills. We are pretty good at listening to interject, listening to argue, or listening to disprove. But when we make understanding our primary goal, the way that we listen changes. We are no longer just tuned into words that we can snatch up and use for ammunition. Author and teacher Carrie Wisehart says that “listening does not mean we agree, it just means we treat the other person like a human being.” She also reminds us that listening to understand involves trying to see perspectives other than our own.
Listen to Support
Good listeners know that listening is a way to offer support. Author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, Steven Covey, says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In other words, we turn listening into something for us. It can be tempting to want to interject when someone is sharing, but listening is about the other person first. This is something I personally battle. I have trouble not composing my next sentence or my rebuttal while the other person is still talking. When I catch myself scripting out the next moments, I know I’m not being a supportive listener. I’ve tried to take back the role of sender without fulfilling my role as receiver. If you find yourself doing this too, try to consciously pull your full energy and attention back to listening.
Listen to Learn
Jumping off of listening to understand and listening to support, we should strive to listen to learn. The easiest way to do this is to ask questions. A friend of mine was telling me about his battle with cancer. He told me that his experience had led him to notice something interesting about communication. He said that most often when people would first learn he was undergoing chemotherapy, they would talk about people they knew who had battled cancer. He knew people were just trying to help him feel like he wasn’t alone or to try to show they understood his experience on some level. But he said it always meant more to him when people, instead, asked him questions. What have you learned? How does it change your daily life? What has surprised you? He said questions like that created more connection and learning than hearing that someone’s uncle had battled cancer. If you are really interested in learning from another person, try trading your stories for questions. And then sit back and listen to learn.
The holiday season offers plenty of opportunities for you to hone your listening skills. During office parties or family gatherings, be intentional about actively listening to those around you. Use the tips provided to really listen, with understanding and support and intent to learn, during the conversations you find yourself in. On Friday, we will discuss how to improve your listening skills in meeting or presentation contexts.
But for now, you can learn more about becoming the best communicator you can be when you check out our all-new, online presentation skills course.