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The Green Sheet Online Edition

August 25, 2008 • Issue 08:08:02

To listen actively

By Vicki M. Daughdrill
Small Business Resources LLC

A thriving business is the goal of every business owner - from the beginning merchant level salesperson to the president and chief executive officer of a large, publicly traded ISO. This necessitates good management, which requires the ability to communicate well.

In "Communication matters," The Green Sheet, July 28, 2008, issue 08:07:02, I discussed the importance of developing good oral and written communication skills. This article takes us one step further and discusses another aspect of good communication: the ability to listen.

Communicating can be difficult, at times, because cultural background, personal history and temperament can all affect how individuals interpret the meanings of words.

Miscommunication happens, and misunderstandings result. Successful business owners understand the challenges inherent in the communication process. They strive to develop strong listening skills to meet the needs of their clients or customers.

Superior communication skills contribute to meeting goals, improving productivity, increasing sales, strengthening business relationships, and avoiding conflict and misunderstandings.

Communicating is a two-way street. If one person is speaking and another person is listening, communication takes place. Conversely, if one person is speaking and another person is not listening, communication does not happen.

Effort required

It is easy for barriers such as distractions, boredom or defensiveness to interrupt the flow of communication.

One of the best ways to become a better listener is to practice "active" listening. According to Wikipedia, active listening is the intent to "listen for meaning, in which the listener checks with the speaker to see that a statement has been correctly heard and understood. The goal of active listening is to improve mutual understanding."

Stated another way, active listening is the act of making a conscious effort to hear not only the words another person is saying but, more importantly, to try to understand the total message being sent.

Active listening consumes time and energy, necessitates concentration and determination, and requires practice. So, how do you listen actively? Following are three guidelines for sharpening your listening skills:

    1. Concentrate and demonstrate that you are listening

    • Stop talking. The old adage about having two ears and one mouth is appropriate. You cannot listen if you are talking.
    • Look directly at the speaker and focus on his or her comments.
    • Endeavor to understand the speaker.
    • Nod your head occasionally.
    • Smile and use other appropriate facial expressions.
    • Maintain an open, inviting posture.
    • Avoid distractions and eliminate interruptions.
    • Take notes, if possible, particularly if the speaker does not provide you written information.

    2. Respond appropriately and offer feedback

    • Provide verbal responses such as yes and OK.
    • Ask questions, repeat words or paraphrase thoughts to ensure you understand what is being discussed.
    • Summarize the speaker's comments frequently.
    • Don't interrupt with counterarguments.
    • Remember the golden rule, and treat others as you would like to be treated.

    3. Postpone making judgments

    • Allow the speaker to finish.
    • Make decisions based on the content, not the messenger or delivery.
    • Make sure you comprehend all of the facts before you reach a judgment.

Courtesy essential

For every type of communication, barriers exist. Common roadblocks to effective listening include allowing disruptions to happen, interrupting the speaker, jumping to conclusions, practicing selective hearing, evaluating and judging the speaker rather than the content, and failing to pay adequate attention.

Here are some tips to help you overcome these listening hurdles:

    • Maintain eye contact with the speaker.
    • Focus on the specific topic being discussed.
    • Pay attention only to the current communication.
    • Interrupt the speaker only to ask necessary clarifying questions.
    • Do not rush the speaker or complete his or her thoughts.
    • Do not assume you already know all of the points the speaker is making.
    • Never make the speaker feel as though he or she is wasting your time.
    • Address the speaker's questions, comments or requests.
    • Do not attempt to top the speaker's story with your own example.
    • Refrain from asking questions simply for the sake of probing.

Masterful listening skills will help advance your career and grow your business. If you think your listening skills need improving, a number of tools exist to help you strengthen your abilities. Recently, Internet bookseller Amazon.com Inc. turned up more than 10,000 hits for the term "active listening."

But the best thing you can do to improve your listening abilities is to acknowledge that you need to improve, follow the tips in this article, and practice, practice, practice. You will soon find your confidence level increasing, your presentations improving and your business expanding by the day. end of article

Vicki M. Daughdrill is the Managing Member of Small Business Resources LLC, a management consulting company. E-mail her at vickid@netdoor.com or call her at 601-310-3594.

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