By Stephynie Malik
If you have ever received the question, “What is the best piece of business advice you ever received? You might be able to relate to the challenge of answering with clarity and certainty.
Like millions of others, my childhood was far less than optimal. Relentlessly pursuing advice, information and actionable feedback became a survival skill as I figured out both myself and my future. It is a habit that continues to serve me well.
The challenge in answering the question is I did not think I could filter, distill or compress all of the advice down to a single sentence or two. However, a question on a different topic enabled me to emphatically and truthfully bring my answer down to one word.
I was a guest on a podcast a while back and the host mentioned a fascinating concept he called the “Paradox of Potential.” He defined it as the gap between a person’s potential and their actual career results. I thought about his question long after the podcast ended. As I reflected, I began to think, “What words did I translate into behaviors and actions that helped me excel?” The answer became clear — crystal clear. The answer was listen.
Note; I said listen, not hear. Listening requires much more work and nuanced skills than merely hearing the words of others. Listening takes more work and more skills, which is often the reason people reply, “I hear ya” to end and escape real conversations.
The simple truths of listening
Truth 1 – A Wright State University article “Listening Effectively” cites research that shows the average person listens at about 25% efficiency. A review of historical research on listening efficiency shows this has been a consistent conclusion for over six decades. The costs of ineffective listening are real. Any misunderstanding can lead to mistakes being made in completing tasks, making poor decisions due to a lack of accurate information and negatively impacting team culture.
Truth 2 – Of the four essential communication skills of reading, speaking, listening and writing, listening is the skill we use the most. Yet listening is often our weakest and least developed skill. Many refer to listening as “the neglected skill” for a variety of reasons.
It is a skill you probably were never taught in your pre-college education, a skill you think you excel at and definitely not a skill that is coached, developed or assessed in most workplaces. This has led us to develop many poor listening habits that prevent us from communicating effectively. This adversely impacts individual relationships and team culture.
Truth 3- Every interaction you have, with individuals or in groups, exposes your listening strengths and deficiencies. The evidence you provide is visible, vocal, overwhelming and easy to assess. People can see through your mannerisms and body language if you are not paying attention. They can hear your constant interruptions while they are trying to speak. They can tell through your tone and words when you feel threatened and become defensive. You may be totally unaware that you are doing it. It does not change the impression others have, however, when they observe your behaviours firsthand.
Truth 4 – Listening is a behaviour and skill that can be learned, developed and mastered. The most significant barrier to getting started and the critical first step is admitting that radical behaviour change is needed to become a better listener.
Truth 5 – Our personal psychology and biases make us the least reliable source of information to assess our core communications behaviors and skills such as listening, emotional intelligence and leadership ability. Yes, that means you need to get direct feedback from those who interact with you and intimately understand if you’re a good listener or not. The fear of doing this is usually what prevents most from truly uncovering the effectiveness of their communications and leadership competencies. Too bad, as improving these skills can be transformational and a game-changer if you put in the work and get it done.
Truth 6 – A simple baseline assessment is easy to do; simply tell people you interact with that you want to be a better listener and ask a few simple questions. The best listeners are attentive while listening and reflective in response. Tell them your goal is to determine what you’re doing well or need to improve to be a better listener.
Do I look distracted or very engaged when we are talking?
Do I listen to your entire thought, or do I frequently interrupt during our conversations?
Do I frequently paraphrase your thoughts when I reply to convey that I listened and understood your ideas, thoughts or points?
Three or four simple questions are all you need to identify any skill gaps that you need to correct immediately.
The point of ‘Truth 5’ was to create a focus on how our biases can prevent us from accurately assessing if our intention to be a great listener is aligned with our behaviours. Truth 6 gives you a simple framework to take action and identify skill gaps.
The benefits of taking a few minutes and a few words to get the opinion of others are not limited to your listening skills. The fact you took the time to ask makes people feel valued and respected. You are taking the first essential steps to improving team engagement and workplace culture.
Truth 7 – Research shows that one critical factor of increasing employee engagement and improving team culture is creating an environment where people feel psychologically safe. Leaders at all levels must make this happen as their behaviors are often the source of the conflict and toxicity that make people feel anything but safe. The more you consistently model effective listening behaviors, the speed at which employees will engage naturally accelerates. Leadership credibility creates trust, and trust eliminates fear and creates a sense of workplace safety.
Experience has taught me this simple yet powerful truth about how to succeed in your career and life: “Listening enables connection. Connection enables learning. Learning enables success. Success begins with silence.” Can you hear me?