Career Coach: How to sharpen your listening skills


November 27, 2011

In my position heading up the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, I often have the opportunity to observe students interacting with employers at job fairs, information sessions and interviews. I am continuously reminded that those students with high emotional intelligence and social savvy impress recruiters the most. They have what it takes to succeed in a competitive marketplace where leaders have to respond skillfully and gracefully to the various audiences they encounter.

To be a good leader, you must be a good communicator — and that includes having extraordinary listening skills. People who are perceived to have an unsympathetic ear can frustrate, and even alienate, those around them. Bad listening can cause someone to be perceived as self-centered, insincere, critical or insensitive. Despite the importance of this skill, my experience as an executive coach suggests that most individuals think of themselves as better listeners then they really are.

Here are some simple things you can do to master the art of listening:

Monitor your airtime. In a conversation, do you spend more time talking or listening? Do you speak more than 50 percent of the time? If so, adjust your behavior. When I’m working with executives or students who have a tendency to speak a lot, I encourage them to monitor their talking-to-listening ratios. As I like to remind my coaching clients, we’re born with two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

Demonstrate genuine interest and empathy. When talking with a recruiter or a colleague, listen carefully to what he or she has to say. Ask questions that show that you’re interested, and try to put aside your feelings and views. If you have a tendency to draw attention to yourself by sharing similar experiences, try instead to invite others to elaborate on their experiences. Are you able to sense others’ needs? One of the favorite stories I recently heard was of a Smith MBA candidate who instead of trying to sell himself, acknowledged the feelings of a weary recruiter by offering to get the recruiter a bottle of water.

Listen to learn. Listening well means letting go of what’s on your mind and being present in the conversation — really trying to hear what the other person is saying, verbally and nonverbally. Don’t interrupt others before they are finished speaking. Try to understand what the person is saying instead of thinking about what you want to say next. During the job search, ask questions to clarify what a recruiter is saying, or paraphrase an interview question to ensure you understand what is being asked. Be careful to avoid coming across as mechanical or overaffirming (too many “uh-huhs”).

Be comfortable with silence. Several recruiters have told me that they like to use silence as a tactic to see how job-seekers respond. Negotiations research suggests that people who are uncomfortable with silence tend to share information that may put them at a competitive disadvantage. Savvy job seekers accept silence during a conversation and are careful not to talk about things that will reduce their employability. They also use silent moments as an opportunity to check on their own nonverbal communications (sit up straight, project self-confidence, no distracting mannerisms). If you feel the need to break the silence, try asking questions.

Minimize other bad listening habits. Be careful not to tune someone out. Texting while others are talking, looking at your watch, changing the subject or failing to make eye contact are among bad listening habits that limit your ability to communicate with others.

Enlist a learning partner. Work with a friend or colleague to help you become more aware of your listening tendencies. Mastering the art of effective listening takes time and practice. Ask your partner to give you feedback. Or seek out someone who is considered a skilled listener to see how he or she responds to others.

Extraordinary listening is essential to engaging others and is critical to successful relationships. Your listening skills can help build trust and rapport with interviewers.

In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems, a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.

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