"He never hears a word I say."
Question: Who's speaking?
A woman talking about her husband? A teenager speaking about a parent? An employee referring to a manager?
Answer: All of the above.
Nothing contributes so much and so steadily to the breakdown of communications between people as the simple failure to listen to one another. This is as true at home as it is on the job.
Above and beyond the problems it causes in human relationships, not listening can also be costly. Instructions are ignored, actions not taken, deadlines missed, opportunities lost—all because somebody didn't listen.
The antidote would seem self-evident: listen.
But like all good advice ("Love thy neighbor" … "Always tell the truth" … "Buy low; sell high" … etc.), the remedy is easier said than done.
To the rescue: Some sug-gestions on practicing the most ignored communica-tions skill of all—listening.
Look at the person doing the talking. This is good policy for several reasons. Anybody worth listening to is worth looking at. It helps you concentrate on what he or she is saying. And by looking at the speaker, you may catch certain nonverbal clues (a shake of the head, a narrowing of the eyes, a smile) that help you understand what is really meant.
Let him know you're interested in what he's saying. If you agree, nod your head. If he tells an amusing story, smile. If he phrases a question, react to it briefly. In short, respond to cues so that the speaker knows you are following his line of reasoning or argument.
Provide feedback. If what he says interests you, show that by leaning toward him. If he surprises you, raise your eyebrows. Through your own body language, you can encourage a speaker to expand on a point...cite additional arguments to bolster a point of view...give a more interesting talk.
Ask questions. These not only demonstrate that you are following what the speaker is saying; it also shows that you are interested in his remarks.
Don't interrupt. To the contrary, ask him to tell you more. Most people will be highly complimented if you don't interrupt them until they're through. But they are doubly complimented if you take the trouble to draw them out. "Could you expand a little on the point you made about motivating people through reward?" "I'd like to know which government agencies offer the kind of information you just described?" Comments like these demonstrate better than anything that you are not only listening, but taking his remarks seriously.
Stick to the speaker's subject. No matter how anxious you may be to do so, don't change the subject until the speaker is finished. This is a case of simple courtesy. And there is always a chance that, by being tolerant, you may learn something.
Quote the speaker to get your own point across. When the other person has finished talking—and only then—repeat some of the things he has said. In addition to proving that you have listened, this is a painless way to introduce your own ideas with little, or no, opposition. You might, for example, preface your remarks with something like, "You certainly defined the problem when you said..." Or, "Your comment on using consultants triggers a thought..." If only out of simple reciprocity, he will almost certainly listen to your ideas.
What is the greatest obstacle to straight thinking? The temptation to let our desires and emotions guide our thinking.
We believe that we assemble reasons, evaluate them and arrive at a conclusion. In reality, however, the conclusions nearly always precede the premises. When a problem confronts us, we jump to a conclusion, then go back and seek reasons to support that conclusion.
Such rationalization is thought of as the process of justifying a decision that has already been consciously arrived at. But it goes deeper than that. The decision may not have been consciously arrived at. Your inclinations may have pointed to a particular set of facts that lead to the desired decision. Such a decision may not be wrong, but it should be suspect.
There is no sure way to keep your emotions out of your reasoning. It is only in recognizing this very human tendency—by scrutinizing every conclusion that seems too pleasing—that you can free your mind for thinking in a wholly logical manner.
Robert Burns was right: the ability to see ourselves as others see us is a rare gift, indeed.
It's rare, because it strikes at what we all hold so precious—our self-esteem. Yet, unless we recognize our shortcomings, how can we hope to improve?
A few questions to generate some thought, herewith:
1. What's the biggest mistake you've made in the last 12 months?
2. Think. What does that mistake demonstrate about your character...ability...judgment?
3. What was the main criticism leveled at you by your boss the last time he appraised you?
4. What's your biggest problem as a manager?
5. Can you find any reason for the problem within yourself?
6. When did you last sit down in an executive session with yourself and analyze your own job performance?
7. Are you a realist? Can you face up to shortcomings... recognize when you are the problem...admit a mistake?
8. When things go wrong, do you tend to blame "others", "circumstances", or "bad luck"?
9. Okay. Bite the bullet. Name your three worst faults.
10. What do you intend to do about them?