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We learn more when we really listen

Even though we all use listening skills at work and in our personal lives, I have found that few persons are really good listeners. Many are not aware that they are just not paying attention. Further, most persons are not skilled in asking questions that are not "conversation stopping. As we become more skilled as active listeners we find that listening and questioning are really disciplines that allow us to learn useful information, and to be perceived as persons who are interested in others. This column is dedicated to one of my mentors, William A. Murray, a consultant from Chicago (gifted, but not the famous Bill Murray). Bill passed away several years ago, but left a legacy of folks like me who learned how to listen better, among other things.

Listening requires considerable control on the part of the listener since our brains work about four times faster than people speak. This excess capacity contributes to "mind wandering" so that often we will be thinking about our families, the weekend golf game, or some other matter unrelated to the conversation at hand. When we "fix" on these unrelated subjects, we lose concentration. The result is that words may be heard, but not understood. There are many other barriers that may hinder our ability to listen actively such as background noise, interruptions, poor ventilation, uncomfortable seating and poor amplification by the speaker. These barriers along with the "frame of reference" of both the speaker and listener can affect the quality of communication. The key to overcoming barriers is to become what Bill called an "active listener". Active listening means that we must listen on three levels:

  • Listen for what is said----the facts, the comments, the words, etc.
  • Listen for what is NOT said---the facts that may have been omitted and the reasons why these were not shared.
  • Listen for how it is Said---what we see and sense from the speaker’s body language including the non-verbal actions and behaviors.

According to Bill and other experts, non-verbals, often called body language, may account for the majority of the “meaning” we get from any conversation. The active listener uses a combination of the techniques, body language-and silence to communicate effectively. Some examples of non-verbal signs are:

  • "I'm listening to you": The active listener leans slightly forward, looks the speaker in the eye and nods approval as the speaker continues.
  • "I'm neutral": In a heated argument, active listeners lean back and let the speakers know that they are not going to enter the argument.
  • "I don't agree": Active listeners may frown to show disapproval of, or confusion about what is being said.

In general, the good active listener will do most or all of the following things when participating in a conversation:

  • Judge content, not delivery errors.
  • Wait until communication is complete before "jumping in".
  • Take fewer notes, listen for themes.
  • Work hard and show an active body state, body language.
  • Fight or avoid distractions, cut barriers, concentrate.
  • Mentally summarize, challenge and encourage the speaker.
  • Interpret "red flag words", but do not get "hung up" on them.

One of the primary barriers to communications and active listening is what communicators call "EVALUATIVE LISTENING". This occurs when listeners process the words being said by the speakers and inject their own beliefs, moral viewpoints or opinions into the conversation without actually paying attention to the words being spoken or the speaker’s meaning. Evaluative listening impedes effective communications and also is rude.

Here's an example of evaluative listening:

Person 1  I didn't run the vacuum cleaner while you were gone shopping.

Person 2  Isn't that just like you, always leaving the dirty work for me!

Person 1  That's a fine response! You always criticize me before I have a chance to speak, just like your mother!

Person 2  What does my mother have to do with this? Your mother is worse!

And so on…

Let's replay the same situation without the evaluative statements using active listening techniques:

Person 1  I didn't run the vacuum cleaner while you were gone shopping.

Person 2  I know you planned to run it. Something must have happened.

Person 1  Actually, I had good intentions, but the phone rang and it was Jim's coach who called a special practice of the hockey team. I had to run him to the rink and stayed to watch.

Person 2  Sounds like fun. I wish I could have gone along, too. How does the team look?

Person 1  Great. We can talk later after I finish the vacuuming.

Person 2  Fine. I have some things to do, too.

See the difference?

To be an active listener, other barriers to avoid are:

INTERRUPTIONS: Let the speaker finish his/her complete thought. You may miss an important point if you stop the speaker too soon.

READING BETWEEN THE LINES: What speakers are saying may not actually represent what they mean. They may be saying, "what is safe" but also giving you clues. Pay attention to what is left out.

NOT CONCENTRATING: The only way to retain facts and be a participant in communication is by paying attention. It's too easy to let your mind wander.

LOSING YOUR COOL: Active listeners must fight the impulse to fight with speakers even though they may strongly disagree with what is being said.

RED FLAG LISTENING: Some people get upset when a word is mentioned like "terrorist", "budget", "union", or "new procedure". They then tend to forget the rest of the speaker's statements. Try to avoid evaluating why the speaker uses a particular word or phrase.

TOO-DEEP-FOR-ME-LISTENING: When we are listening to ideas that are complex, it takes extra concentration.

PENCIL LISTENING: Trying to write down everything the speaker is saying will often cause the listener to miss important points and non-verbals. It's best to jot down key words in an outline form.

Active listening has several objectives in workplace situations. Among them are:

  • We want and need people to talk freely and openly.
  • We want and need them to give us as much information as possible.
  • We want them to get greater insight and understanding of their own problems as they talk them out with us.
  • We want to help others see the causes and reasons for their problem(s) and to figure out what can be done about them.

The active listener will also ask questions when the message received is unclear, or when the message received appears to be incomplete. There are some specific listening techniques that can be used to help the communication process. Although, we can easily understand the techniques, it takes practice, patience and repetition to make them work effectively.

Some additional good techniques to become an active listener are:

ENCOURAGING: This is where you help the person continue to talk. Use phrases like "I see" or "that's interesting". You may also use non-verbals to convey interest and concern.

RESTATING: This helps your understanding of what the speaker has said and let's he or she know you have grasped the facts. An example would be; "If I understand what you said, then we would have to close the production line at 3 p.m. to allow proper cleaning?"

REFLECTING: This shows the speaker that you are listening and are tuned-in to their feelings. An example would be; "You feel that the work schedule is too tight?" Or; "You were apparently pretty disturbed by Jim leaving early?"

SUMMARIZING: This is a good technique to pull ideas and thoughts together. Summarizing can be a plateau that leads to further discussion and reviews progress. An example would be; "This seems to be your idea about the assembly process."

A final thought from William A. Murray. He often reminded others and me that we were given two ears and one mouth for the simple reasons that we should listen twice as often as we speak. Hear! Hear!

Sid Scott is president of Scott Consultants in Dubuque, Iowa. E-mail to contact Sid.