Successful Listening

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These days, hardly anyone seems to take the time—or make the time—to listen to others. Nevertheless, when working with team members and customers, genuine listening—not just going through the motions—is critical to success.

According to Diann Daniel, writing in CIO magazine, clues that you’re not listening include not making eye contact, interrupting the speaker, finishing the speaker’s thoughts, rushing the speaker, and paying attention to something other than the speaker. In interviewing several high-tech leaders, Daniel found that one of the key contributors to successful listening is choosing to listen. Choosing means giving the person your full attention. You turn off or turn away from all digital devices and make yourself fully present.

Listening, Daniel points out, is not a passive activity:

You might completely disagree with what the other person is saying, but you will know exactly what it is you disagree with. But listening gives you something in common with another person and can make him feel valued.

According to Ram Sharan, in a Harvard Business Review blog, genuine listening is a discipline. Over time, he believes, people lose their ability to listen because it's so much faster to make a decision based on the information you already have. Disciplined listening entails, among other things, striving to understand the other person's frame of reference and listening intently for the important content—what he calls “sifting for the nuggets.” Doing these kinds of things lets the other person know you understand her.

As with any skill, disciplined listening takes practice. Sharan emphasizes that truly empathetic listening requires the willingness to let go of old habits and embrace new ones that may initially feel time-consuming and inefficient. But "once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into true ones."

Of course, if you're going to listen, you have to be open to the fact that not everything you hear will be positive.

In the view of Fiona Charles, a test consultant and StickyMinds.com columnist, too many software professionals have had to deal with managers who wouldn’t listen when they expressed concern about the potential for failure. Skilled listeners have to be willing to listen to the bad news as well as the good.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.