Listening skills are essential to effective communication

  • Article by: HARVEY MACKAY
  • June 19, 2011 - 2:31 PM

Few things are more frustrating than having to repeat yourself because the person you are speaking to isn't listening. It wastes time and money.

Perhaps a little further up the annoyance scale is the exchange -- I hesitate to call it a conversation -- in which both parties are so determined to get their own points across that they have little regard for what the other is saying. When everyone is talking at the same time, or planning their next remarks instead of listening and responding, it demonstrates a real lack of respect for the speaker and the message.

As I've said many times before, we have two ears and one mouth -- a clue that we should listen twice as much as we talk.

My friend Bob Dilenschneider, who as CEO of the Dilenschneider Group in New York helps corporations communicate globally, is concerned about the "lost art" of listening.

"Sadly, the current state of the nation's political discourse underscores how much has been forgotten or neglected about the art of listening," he wrote to me. "We feel the need to cast a light on this topic because of the rising din in public and private discourse -- and the fading prospect the decibel level will ratchet lower.

"Everyone seems to be shouting, declaiming and clamoring; few appear to be listening. The chasm between hearing and truly listening grows ever wide. What has followed, inevitably, is anger, misunderstanding, frustration and, too often, gridlock and dysfunctional government," he says.

Bob attributes a good part of the problem to the age in which we live: "The problem is pervasive in modern society. Many of us don't listen because we're too busy talking, texting, blogging and using Twitter and Facebook. ... Because most people have gotten used to talking without listening to their adversaries, and even their allies, this tendency to transmit rather than receive has become the hallmark of the cyber-era."

Is this a dismissal of the importance of social media? Hardly. Face it, we are all so wired in that we can hardly remember when we had to actually talk to each other. We love the freedom, the flexibility and the efficiency.

But when the result is a lost ability to effectively communicate because we can't define the tone of the communication or don't agree with the sender, our listening skills go into lockdown mode. Is anyone listening?

I would submit that to get people to listen to you, you must first demonstrate that you are a good listener. Learning or relearning good listening skills starts with a few basic concepts, which Bob shared with me. With his permission, I will share them with you.

Avoid passing judgment. I agree with Bob that we are often so eager to make our own point that we stop listening to the others' points of view. I have found that if I listen carefully, there are often many points of agreement. Even more often, I learn something new that enables me to reconsider or reinforce my opinion.

Be patient. Bob warns against interrupting. Let the other party finish before you jump in. When you violate this rule, you run the risk of making the speaker defensive and inadvertently give permission for others to interrupt you.

Pay attention. How simple is this idea -- and how often is this advice ignored. Bob reminds us that noisy restaurants or street corners are tough places to hold a discussion. Add the cellphone, among other gadgets, to the list of distractions.

Ask. If you are confused about what is being said, just request clarification. What you thought you heard might not be what the speaker meant.

Listen at different levels. Be aware of body language. Actions often do speak louder than words.

Will improved listening skills solve every problem? Of course not. But you'll solve one problem: establishing a level of respect that will set the tone for the rest of the discussion.

Mackay's Moral: If you want to be heard, you must know how to listen.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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