Want to be a better communicator? It all starts with listening. Do you listen with the intent to understand or the intent to answer?
It takes emotional fortitude to phone a government department. It’s a bit like a mission I choose to accept, a challenge to overcome, a game that I want to win. It all started with an application to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). I needed information on a funding scheme, the eligibility criteria and then a ‘click-here-to-apply, Julie’ button, boldly labelled, just for me.
I couldn’t find the information I wanted on the website (strangely), so I decided to call. I steeled myself for the experience and dialled the number.
Now, at this point, anything can happen. It’s a lottery. Will the call be answered? Will I be able to sing along to the piped music? Will I talk to a call centre operator who needs to know where and when I was born before connecting me to the correct person?
But lo and behold! The phone was answered straight away and I was talking to the person who had the information I needed. The wonders of a direct dial.
Except the conversation didn’t proceed as I hoped. I struggled to understand the information, even asking questions to clarify, but it became obvious that we were talking past each other. At one point, the MBIE staff member said, “you’re really not getting this, are you?” And you know what? She was right. I wasn’t getting it because I wasn’t expecting too. I was listening with an attitude that this would be difficult.
And that’s the problem. I can say that I listened, and I certainly heard the words. But I didn’t listen with the intent to understand.
So, how do you change your intention and be a better listener?
- Be aware of your motivation. Are you really trying to understand or are you trying to be right? Are you trying to teach or to punish? It takes honesty with yourself, reflection and insight to really know the answer.
- Use listening skills, such as asking questions to clarify. “Is this what you mean when you say…?”
- Paraphrase, or repeat back, what you’ve heard to check for understanding. “It sounds like you are saying….”
- Summarise what you’ve heard the speaker saying. “As I understand it, you’re saying that…”
- Reflect the feeling behind the words. “I hate work. It’s the pits.” “You sound very frustrated about your work.”
- Pay attention: We speak at around 225 words per minute, but our brains listen at around 500 words per minute. So, our brains fill in the gaps with other thoughts, like what to have for dinner, or who do I need to call? Stay focused and stop your thoughts when you start to drift.
- Don’t prepare your answer while the other person is talking. You’ve only heard part of the message at this point. Give them time to finish what they are saying.
- Listen to the whole message, including the tone, body language, facial expression, as well as the verbal message. Studies indicate that only about 20% of the message we pay attention to is the verbal message. Most of what we pay attention to is body language and tone. This point is especially relevant for e-communication, such as emails and messaging where we can’t see the body language and make assumptions around tone.
It takes practice to become a better listener. There’s no quick fix. We know this way works:
- Choose just one of these skills, the one you most need to work on, and focus on it.
- Practice it, ask for feedback from those closest to you and reflect on what you need to do to get better.