Many professionals and executives focus their energies on improving their communication skills. For most, that means concentrating on speaking skills. After all, we’ve been told since college that we need to be polished public speakers if we expect to have a successful career. Unfortunately, countless professionals forget the importance of active listening.
Active listening is more than just hearing. Hearing is much like driving down the highway, hands on the wheel without incident, but without actually remembering the last 20 miles. Active listening is truly paying attention to every road sign and mile-marker, keeping tabs on your speed limit at all times, and knowing exactly where you happen to be.
To be an effective listener, you need to pay attention to not only the words being said, but you also must be cognizant of nonverbal cues, too. So much of communication is nonverbal.
Active listening skills are extremely important if you want to be a better leader, a better employee or a better partner. There are two ways to do improve your active listening skills:
1. Make listening a priority. You have to want to develop your listening skills. Many professionals want to be better speakers but the great communicators, those who truly connect with people, know how to listen. Instead of always focusing on what you are saying, focus on what the other person is saying.
2. Practice. Put yourself in situations where you can practice. Go into a conversation with the goal that you will talk half the time and listen half the time. That will get you on the right path. Test your skills at a networking event — you’ll be way ahead of the small-talk game. You may still have trouble remembering the names of the new people you just met. But if you were actively listening, you’ll be able to reflect on your conversations and file that information away for when you might need it (think potential client relationships, sales opportunities, future career opportunities).
On the flip side, it’s important to acknowledge the difficultly many people have in listening and take that into account when you are doing the talking, whether you’re giving a presentation or having a business conversation. Make it easier for other people to hear what you have to say:
Be engaging. Not everyone is excited to hear what you have to say, unfortunately. Recognize this and incorporate ways to add to your words to hammer your message home. Use inflection and vary the rate and pace of your speech. Raise the bar while you’re communicating to help pull your listeners in by varying the tone and volume of your voice. Record yourself talking to determine if you have poor speaking habits. If, for instance, when you speak, you sound like you end every sentence with a question mark, then you have an issue with an ending pattern. That particular habit makes you sound like you lack confidence. Fix that quickly.
Use nonverbal cues to your advantage. Use hand gestures and facial expressions to engage the other person or the audience. If you’re making a presentation, move around the room. Approach your audience. If it’s a one-on-one conversation, lean forward occasionally to show interest.
Be a good example. Be sure to display good listening habits, especially while playing the presenter role. Be in tune with your audience’s nonverbal cues and respond to them. You can’t expect others to really listen if you’re not.
It’s rare to have a boss, client or colleague who listens intently to everything you say. Many executives spend their conversations not listening, but rather forming their next question while the other person is talking. Imagine how happy people would be if they knew their boss, client or colleague was actually listening, cutting out all of the noise that can interfere with a conversation and focusing directly on that person and what they have to say. Actively listening can lead to great working relationships. While you continue to work on your speaking and presentation skills, it is at least as important that you develop your active listening skills as well.
Ken White is associate dean of MBA and MS programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and holds a Ph.D. in communication. He also teaches executive courses on communication. He previously served as the chief communication and marketing officer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the Virginia Military Institute. A former television anchor and reporter, he began his career in higher education as a mass communication professor and department chair.