This post is written by Kara Rising, an associate at Metcalf & Associates who specializes in coaching emerging leaders.
A couple of weeks ago a few friends and I went to the Chamber Escape Room here in Columbus, Ohio. This live, interactive experience is essentially inspired by computer escape games. You and 11 other people are escorted into a room, a tape is played, and then you work together to solve riddles and puzzles. Oh, and you only have 45 minutes to find the key to unlock the door and escape. It. Was. Awesome! Even though many of us had never met before, we managed to work together, and solved the puzzle with 10 minutes left to spare! I was impressed.
Playing this game highlighted how critically important communication is to getting along in life and in business. How were we able to solve the puzzles when, according to the game organizers, 50% of groups don’t even make it out of the room? What does this statistic tell us about lack of communication and problem solving skills? I think our group was successful because we all communicated openly and cooperatively.
The sad truth is that the Chamber Escape Room percentage is an accurate depiction of how we communicate in daily life. Many of us don’t communicate well. Why? How is it that for the millions of years that humans have been around we still suck at it? While I might not be able to answer why, I have an insight into how we can be better about communicating. It starts with listening.
How many of you believe you are good listeners? I bet most of us think we are decent – or at least average – at listening. The truth is most of us stink. In their article in The Harvard Business Review, Listening To People, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens provided some pretty surprising stats. One states that A University of Michigan study of thousands of students and business professionals found only a 50% retention of information immediately after it was communicated to them – no matter how carefully the participants judged themselves to be listening. Now this might be simply because our brains just can’t store that much information all of the time. However, this is also because of a great lack of attention and training into this skill that we do daily.
Fortunately, there are ways you can improve your existing (or non-existing) skills. Here is a list of the Do’s and Don’ts of listening to help you listen more effectively.
- Practice training your brain to use your internal thinking effectively. It’s easy for us to start mentally wandering off during a conversation- if the speaker is too slow, we judge the content to be uninteresting or a word triggered a memory or thought. By the time we even realized that we have wandered off, we’ve missed a significant portion of what the speaker is saying. To avoid this, practice reading for ideas, emotions or meaning that is spoken (or perhaps unspoken) within the conversation.
- Periodically summarize what has already been said in your head so that you can recall more easily when you then do it out loud.Paraphrase what the speaker has said. This is where summarizing in your head will come in handy. Do not parrot what the person has said- that’s not true listening and comprehension, that’s just memorization.
- Ask the question “did I get that right?”Once you are done paraphrasing what you heard the speaker say, ask if you heard him or her correctly. Not only does this communicate that you are interested in understanding what is being said but it also gives the speaker the chance to correct anything you heard that was incorrect. This helps eliminate problems in the future.
- Give verbal and physical cues that you are listening. For example, nodding your head or the occasional (but not frequent) “mmhmm” or “interesting”
- Put away all distractions. Turn away from your computer, put your phone away, stop writing and face the speaker
- Fidget. Not only is it a distraction but it communicates you are bored or anxious with what the person is saying. Even if you are a natural mover, try to curb your inner energy and stay still.
- Interrupt. Sometimes you want to jump in on the conversation to clarify or argue a point the person just said- please refrain.
- Get defensive. Listen with an open mind to what is being said- perhaps there is some truth in the content that can be used to improve your skills as a leader. Even if you feel there is no truth, arguing will stall the conversation and keep resolution from being achieved.
- Jump to judgments. Whether it is about the content you are hearing or about the person speaking, do not make judgments. Not only is this good practice for listening, but it is also good practice for everyday life. Keep in mind sometimes even positive judgments can be harmful.
- Change subjects. Have you ever had someone ask you a question, you answer and then that person fails to acknowledge your answer but asks another question or begins to talk about something unrelated? I can tell you it communicates that what you have to say is insignificant- regardless of the person’s intent. Save it for the natural conclusion of the conversation.
Many studies and polls have found that having effective communication skills is the number one thing employers look for in hiring and promoting. If within the four parts of communication we write 9% of the time, read 16%, speak 30% and listen 45%, it stands to reason that we should focus more efforts on being better at listening. Not only will this help you succeed at work, but it will help you succeed in leadership and in your personal life. Sounds like a no brainer! Now go out and be good listeners!