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Pith and Vinegar: Can You Hear Me Now?
Published
2006, Q4 (January 31, 2007)
Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey

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by Michael Harvey, Carolina Chapter Past President

Listening is a skill every technical communicator needs to hone. Too often when we speak, we tune out the other person before they've stopped talking and start thinking about what we want to say next, or think about something else altogether. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone, and it's a bad habit I want to eradicate. But kicking that habit requires a commitment, like running a marathon, not a single act, like a mad dash through a rainstorm to your car in the parking lot. It's something that requires thought, practice, and diligence.

Here's one simple exercise that anyone can do to sharpen their listening skills. After you make a point or a proposal, or communicate something that requires some degree of buy-in or understanding from your listener, stop and ask "what do you think?"

Four simple words, but the hard part comes after you say them.

Stop talking. Absorb what the other person says. Don't say a single word until the other person has come to a full stop. Only when you're sure the other person has stopped, say "now let me see if I understand you." Then paraphrase what they've said.

I don't intend to pose this exercise as an insult to the conversationally savvy or as a condescending lecture to those who are less so. I do wish to emphasize the power of four simple words, the act of willful, conscious listening, and a sincere paraphrase of what you hear. You'll gain the trust of the person with whom you're speaking. If you make this a deliberate practice in every conversation in which you engage, just as you brush your teeth a certain number of times every day, you'll find you'll become a better listener. It will become second nature to stop talking and take in what the other person says.

A side benefit of listening is that you won't talk as much as you used to. This will do wonders for your throat and for the disposition of those around you. You'll have more time to read and think, which is good for your mind.

According to Terry Wildemann (see http://www.itstime.com/apr2000.htm#good for more information), a good listener exhibits the following skills:
  • Is always prepared to take notes when necessary. That means having writing tools readily available.
  • Repeats the information he or she heard by saying, I hear you saying ... Is that correct? If the speaker does not agree, repeats the process to ensure understanding.
  • Remains curious and ask questions to determine if he or she accurately understands the speaker
  • Wants to listen to the information being delivered
  • Is physically and mentally present in the moment
  • Listens by using the ears to hear the message, the eyes to read body language (when listening in person), the mind to visualize the person speaking (when on the telephone), and intuition to determine what the speaker is actually saying
  • Establishes rapport by following the leader
    • Matches the momentum, tone of voice, body language, and words used by the speaker
    • Uses common sense when matching. If the speaker is yelling, don't do the same because it will make a bad situation worse.

Listening effectively is challenging enough when you agree with someone. It's difficult but even more important when you disagree. And how you express that disagreement must be nuanced by your relationship with the other person. Does that person know you or not? Is that person a peer or a boss? Is this someone whose cooperation you need? Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D. at http://www.winstonbrill.com/bril001/html/article_ index/articles/151-200/article192_body.html says "keep in mind the difference between dissent and defiance. Defiance means attacking the other person's position and making him wrong. Dissent meant having the courage to stand up for what you think and feel. It's the difference between saying "You're wrong" and "This is how I feel." Clearly, a dissenting message is much easier to hear than a defiant one. The listener is more willing and interested in hearing a dissenter's objection. Someone who hears a defiant objection will tend to either ignore the comment or rudely be counter-defiant. This is a common problem that tends to increase barriers between people, something you don't want in a work environment where teamwork is necessary." Someone who hears dissent also needs to know that you, the dissenter, has truly listened to what they have to say.

Listening is critical to dealing with customers effectively. In an article about Teaching Customer Service Reps the Art of Listening (http://www.businessknowhow.com/marketing/artlisten.htm), Adrian Miller provides these simple tactics for effective listening:
  • Tune out distractions and focus on each call as if it were the most important of the day
  • Concentrate on what the customer is saying rather than thinking about what YOU want to say
  • Don't interrupt; a customer's willingness to talk, within a reasonable time period, represents a golden opportunity to find out the problem / situation
  • Don't jump to conclusions
  • Become attuned to tone of voice and inflection; these can be as telling as the words themselves
  • Occasionally repeat what the customer has said — it shows attention and comprehension
  • Ask for clarification if a statement or objection is vague
  • Create rapport by smiling (even in telephone sales a smile can be HEARD through the phone!)
  • Take notes to be sure you remember the customer's key points
  • Be familiar with common questions and problems and practice responding in a natural, conversational manner
  • Control your emotions and be courteous, no matter how rude the customer might be
  • Continually evaluate whether you are asking the right questions to uncover and solve the problem

If you're interested in becoming a more effective listener, check out these additional resources:

Another take on listening skills at http://www.infoplease.com/homework/listeningskills1.html.

Although there are many practical reasons to improve your listening skills, ranging from how it positively affects how others perceive you to how it improves your chances for professional advancement, the most important reason is simple and practical. It's the right thing to do. Steven Covey, who's authored the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says to "seek first to understand, and then be understood." As Covey points out, as you learn to listen deeply to other people, you will discover tremendous differences in perception. Only then can you begin to achieve win-win outcomes.


Michael Harvey can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com.

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