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The Art of Listening So That People Will Talk

Consider this common employee complaint “I keep talking but no one is listening” "I have said this to my supervisor over and over but I never feel heard”. Too many of us find ourselves in communication loops – inefficient conversations about the same things over and over again. If you have been on the sending or receiving side of these circular dialogues, you may want to reconsider your greatest tool in performance coaching: your ears; not your mouth. Research shows that 80% of effective communication is attributed to listening.

Active listening consists of verbal and non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication - commonly known as ‘body language’ - includes facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, tone of voice, and other signals perceived by our senses. Both forms of communication must support the same message. For instance, if you say, “talking to you about this is important to me” but sit back in your chair, tap your pen and cross your arms, the employee hears that you are interested and available but sees that you are disinterested and rushed.

Match your facial expression to theirs as you are listening. Blank facial expressions increase anxiety. Expressions that reflect empathy and understanding encourage honesty and openness.

Consider timing and location. Try to get out from behind your desk and move to a more collaborative setting like a conference room. Be cognizant not to rush the interaction.

A simple but powerful non-verbal affirmation is head nodding. Think of the person you feel most comfortable confiding in. Chances are they do lots of head nodding to say “I’m with you.”

Reflect – by selecting certain emotions to reflect back (“I can see how that would be difficult for you”, “It sounds like you felt left out of the team”) you confirm you heard them, eliciting more information and specific details that may be helpful in your coaching.

Clarify - the most difficult things are often those we dance around or dilute; making it easy to avoid saying them at all. By saying “Tell me more about,” or “Help me understand that more,” or “Can you give me an example?” it helps both parties find meaning.

Ask - use open-ended questions to encourage the person to provide details that will aid in your understanding of the issue. Rather than “Did this situation happen recently?” try “Share with me how this situation came about.” Also, be sure to ask specifically what support or involvement they want from you.

Remember, just because we can hear doesn’t mean we can listen. The art of listening so people will talk is just that: an Art. It is a learned skill that requires practice. Take another look at your problem performers. Consider who hasn’t been listening – you or them? If the answer is both, then it’s time for some follow-the-leader, where you get to set the example for active listening in your team.

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Jennifer Shirkani
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