During a break between sessions at a conference, a colleague and I sat in a cluster of comfortable chairs in the hallway. We discussed our goal to learn what conference attendees had on their minds and priorities. We were there to gather information.
A conference attendee approached us shortly and asked to join us. After quick introductions, I asked, “So, what brings you to the conference?” He started to answer with his desire to learn about a few topics, and my colleague jumped in to describe how we can provide that service, how we can help them solve that and related problems, and continued on and on.
We only had a few minutes till the next session. That brief conversation ended with only two sentences from the person we deliberately wanted to listen to and understand their challenges and motivations.
When I later had a chance, I told my colleague that it is tough to listen while talking.
Listening is a skill. One that you can improve if you want to.
Why Listening is Important
Listening is one way we receive the articulated thoughts of another person. We also use our eyes to ‘listen’ to body language. You may hear requests, recommendations, proposals, directions, and sometimes a humous joke on any given day. We listen a lot, or should.
If you don’t listen well, you may only register that the other person was speaking and not much else. If you listen well, you hear the words, the inflections, the hints at motivations, and a chance to understand the other person.
You may have noticed the difference between someone who listens well and doesn’t. You know you have their attention. You are being heard. You are being respected. We tend to enjoy speaking to someone who is actively listening.
Listening well allows us to gather information, understand requests, and learn. Hearing someone else is one step; understanding them is the goal. When we try to understand, we open ourselves to the points of view and motivations behind what is being said.
One-to-one conversations are the only situations where we listen. Facilitating a meeting or making a presentation or proposal to a group is another set of circumstances when listening is essential. For example, you can ‘listen’ for clues to address a question or change the tempo when presenting.
The ability to pause and listen avoids confusion, misunderstanding, and the consequences of not listening well. It allows you to
- collect information, ideas, and input,
- let others be heard and understood,
- build trust,
- improve influence,
- encourage engagement, and
- discover ways to improve.
When to Practice Listening
As mentioned above, we have the opportunity to listen often. The act of just listening, along with self-assessment of how well you did, is one you can do with every conversation. Yet, that is not as effective as when you deliberately practice listening.
Deliberate practice is when you practice a skill, such as listening, and get feedback on how well you did. This can be done when talking with someone you trust to provide meaningful feedback. Or, when you have an ‘observer,’ a third person present in the conversation, who is there to observe how well you listen, then later provide their observations.
Let’s say you are planning to conduct an interview. Ask a trusted colleague to attend the interview and keep track of the time you spoke versus listening. Practicing deliberately takes effort and courage, yet it is a proven way to improve a skill.
How to Improve Your Ability to Listen Well
The prominent place to start is by wanting to improve. You can decide to improve.
The following five tips to improve your listening skills is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of the book Carl Carlson and I co-authored titled The Process of Reliability Engineering.
Establish the Right Mindset
Your frame of mind sets the stage for your ability to listen. If you are willing to learn, you are willing to listen.
Picture the Words Spoken
To avoid focusing on your memories or the next set of statements or a story you wish to share, picture the words spoken as you listen. This may be a literal visualization of the words as if typed, written, or more conceptual in a mind map or outline.
Avoid Interruptions and Solutions
It is your turn to listen, so listen. Let the other person finish. Making assumptions and jumping to conclusions suggests you are not really listening.
Ask Open-Ended Questions.
Asking questions to expand the conversation and explore the other person's thoughts and views encourages them to continue the discussion. Avoid questions that require only a yes or no response.
Summarize and Check Understanding
When discussing a complete topic, occasionally summarize the points recently discussed and ask if you understand the concepts expressed.
You will find additional tips and recommended references to learn more about active listening in Chapter 11 of The Process of Reliability Engineering.
Listening is a skill that, when mastered, will set you apart from others in a good way. Being labeled a ‘good listener’ is a good thing.
Notice your current skill level and build on improving from there. If you interrupt to tell your story before the other person completes their thought, that is an opportunity to improve. While there are many aspects of active listening, you can pick one behavior and focus on improving in that area.
Changing behaviors is difficult and takes time. If you can enlist the help of someone you trust, that will undoubtedly help. One step at a time is all it takes to improve your listening skills and enjoy the associated benefits.
Please let me know if you have a question about this topic. You can add a comment below or contact me directly. I look forward to listening to you.
Fred Schenkelberg is the reliability expert at FMS Reliability, a reliability engineering and management consulting firm he founded in 2004. Fred formerly worked at Hewlett Packard (HP), where he established HP’s Reliability Team. His areas of expertise include program development, accelerated life test design & analysis, reliability statistics, risk assessment, test planning, and training. As a consultant, Fred’s focus is on maximizing return on analysis, testing, and engineering management activities with your engineering team. Feel free to contact Fred directly at email@example.com about the company’s offerings and expertise.
Fred is also the driving force of Accendo Reliability, a platform for reliability education and community that he and a small group of technical professionals created over a decade ago. Today, Accendo Reliability is a consortium of over three dozen leaders who actively provide thought content in reliability, engineering, and maintenance. The material is in the form of eBooks, articles, and podcasts.
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