Communication in a business is critical and, in my work as an organisational coach, I often come across problems caused by poor communication and poor listening skills. This can affect relationships between family members in family businesses, between managers, between team members and even with customers.
In this article I’m going to explore why listening is important for your business and how you can take steps to improve it.
Tasneem Virani, founder of Claris Coaching
Why listening is important
There’s an old adage that we have two ears and one mouth, and should use them proportionally. This couldn’t be more true than in the service industry.
In the last few months I’ve travelled extensively, for work and pleasure, staying in a wide range of hotels and resorts, experiencing their service and the service from other sectors such as restaurants and retail stores. Some where English is the dominant language, some where it isn’t. Observing the interactions between managers and their team and onto their customers I’ve often asked myself “Are they really listening?”.
Here are just a few of the problems I have encountered – they will probably ring a bell with you too!
The wrong food order arrives
– Did the person who took the order really listen and understand what I needed?
– Did they understand what food is actually available?
– Did the chef understand the order when it was handed over?
– Does the manager think that everything is going fine, when in reality their team is trying to tell them that there’s a problem?
The shop assistant was disinterested and unhelpful
– Were they distracted by their own thoughts? Perhaps they were just having a bad day?
– Is management listening to their team (both their words and their body language) and providing them with proper support and motivation?
I had to wait too long for service
– Were all the people involved in providing the service aware of the delay?
– Were they all blaming each other?
– Were they trying to hide a problem from their manager?
All of these underlying issues could be resolved through better listening.
The business impact of not listening
In a ‘guest experience’ environment not listening can mean your business is really missing out, because those unsatisfied customers or employees won’t come back and certainly won’t recommend you to their friends.
In a wider business environment not listening can lead to misunderstandings, ultimately causing poor service delivery and an unhappy team. In negotiations not listening can diminish your leverage and lose the respect of your counterpart.
Listening is one of the cornerstones of trust. By listening you make the other person feel understood, you show compassion and a willingness to solve problems together.
How to listen well
Listening is a core skill, but doing it well isn’t easy.
In their book “FYI: For Your Improvement” Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger discuss the importance of listening and state that we can be skilled or unskilled listeners.
Unskilled listeners tend to cut people off and finish their sentences for them – so busy constructing their own response they often miss important details of what is being said to them. They may appear arrogant, impatient or uninterested.
Whereas a skilled listener will practice attentive listening, has patience and can accurately restate the opinions of others – even the opinions they disagree with!
To listen well we need empathy, and emotional and conversational intelligence. The CARE acronym should help us remember this:
- Acceptance that what the other is saying is true for them
- Respect what the other is saying
- Empower – believe that they too can come up with the solution
And the magical thing about listening is that if you do it well, then the person talking to you will be far more open to listening to you in return!
7 ways to listen better
These are our recommendations to help you improve your own listening skills and those of your team.
1. Analyse yourself
The first thing to do is to step back and assess how well you listen. Think back to recent conversations and evaluate the patterns of your behaviour and what triggers them. What are your blind spots? Make a list of what you do well and which areas you need to improve upon; writing it down will help you focus on what needs to change.
It’s also useful to think of times when you feel you weren’t listened to properly. What caused you to feel like this? Do you ever display any of those behaviours?
2. Lose any biases
If you’re preparing for an important discussion or negotiation then you should think about any biases you might feel for the person you’ll be talking to (for example, do you consider that what the other team members in your business have to say is less important than what the managers have to say?).
Do you have an expectation about how the conversation will go? Try to be as open minded as you can, give the other person a chance to say what they are going to say, don’t assume what that will be. For example, if you go into a conversation expecting it to become an argument then you will naturally be more defensive, and potentially cause an argument that wasn’t otherwise going to happen!
These unconscious feelings can cause us to listen poorly, but by recognising them we can strive to minimise their impact.
3. Clear your mind
Having something else on your mind, particularly if it’s something stressful, can make it difficult for you to concentrate on the person talking to you.
Be aware of this and mentally put your preoccupations to one side for the duration of your conversation. If your situation is too stressful then be aware of this and delay important conversations until you can be present in heart and mind, as well as in body.
4. Don’t assume what the other person’s going to say
We often think “Oh, I know what they’re going to say next” and use this as a way to interrupt the conversation before they’ve even had a chance to say it!
Go into the conversation with one objective – to fully understand what it is they are going to say. Not to put your point of view across, not to question their judgement, not to complete their sentence for them. Simply to make sure that you completely comprehend what they are saying.
So don’t interrupt. Wait for them to finish what they are saying, then paraphrase it to show you understand or ask questions if you don’t.
5. Ask the right questions
In her book “Conversational Intelligence” Judith Glasier discusses how the latest neuroscience and brain research has shown that our ability to listen and respond during conversations is influenced by our ability to make a connection with the person we’re talking to.
Ask questions about their views, needs and interests to show empathy and emotional intelligence – thereby making that connection and demonstrating your willingness to listen.
6. Show compassion
Whatever your views on what the person is saying, you need to accept that their words are true for them in that moment. Listen with your heart. You may not agree with them, that is your prerogative, but you at least need to believe that this is their opinion and show empathy, even if you don’t share their views. Remembering the CARE acronym can help with this.
7. Beyond words
We all know that much of communication (73% in fact) isn’t in the words we say but comes from our thoughts and emotions when we say them, and the accompanying tone and body language. So you need to listen to this as well (yes, listening with your heart), this will help you to understand the emotion behind the words.
Be aware if the person you’re talking to becomes defensive or protective in their tone or body language, this could be a good indicator that they don’t feel you’re listening to them properly. Acknowledge their thoughts and emotions, and ask questions to clarify any misunderstanding.
Across the language barrier
Language differences can, obviously, make listening more tricky. But it also makes listening so much more important. Plus it becomes essential to consider to the tone and body language behind the words, because a lot can be understood from these non-verbal signs.
From a more practical point of view, services such a Google translate can be useful in the workplace, but they can get things wrong, so always take extra care that you have properly understood the conversation, don’t completely rely on Google to do this for you.
A final thought
To sum up the importance of listening I’d like to quote the American academic and politician S.I.Hayakawa, from his 1949 book “Language In Thought And Action”.
“A human being is never dependent on his own experience alone for his information. Even in a primitive culture he can make use of the experience of his neighbors, friends, and relatives, which they communicate to him by means of language. Therefore, instead of remaining helpless because of the limitations of his own experience and knowledge, instead of having to discover what others have already discovered, instead of exploring the false trails they explored and repeating their errors, he can go on from where they left off. Language, that is to say, makes progress possible.”
And if you have communication problems caused by unskilled listening in your organisation then we’re here to…well…listen! We’ll help you to better understand your situation and the underlying causes and work with you to create a more communicative and healthier working environment. Would you like to know more? Then get in touch with us at email@example.com or call us on 020 8432 9886.