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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Learning how to listen a valuable skill

By Vicky Smith
Sun Media

Recently, I was involved in a conflict situation where, after many convoluted conversations, much spreading of misinformation and great frustration, the focus settled on who was right. The key issues were finally uncovered, but not without wounded survivors.

"You're not listening to me," came up often in the many conversations during this conflict. Generally, listening is confused with hearing. There was a tremendous amount of talking and hearing taking place, where the participants' egos focused on winning and being right rather than on the real problem.

Confrontational game

I have been in plenty of meetings where confrontation was the goal and each participant used psychological or physical (body language) tactics to strategically move the discussion to score points and win the confrontational game. Again, the real issues were often not dealt with. Many people feel meetings today are a waste of time. Nothing ever seems to be accomplished and they walk away stressed, frustrated and with a pile of work to catch up on.

These scenarios describe how "toughies" deal with conflict. What makes toughies feel proud is they think they have convinced everyone they are right. They're not like the sensitive ones, who go away mad or hurt. They can leave the shouting match behind them.

When resolving conflicts, the notion of winning or losing is destructive and unproductive. Unfortunately, many people work in chaos where lack of effective communication creates unpleasant work environments. One of the best ways to improve communication and break away from the game of winning is to develop effective listening skills.

Steven McShane, in Canadian Organizational Behaviour, says: "Poor listening habits are learned early in our childhood and we are seldom rewarded for our ability to listen. As we move through our formative years, we are taught to develop our reading, writing or speaking skills, with very little emphasis on developing good listening habits."

Through sports and attempts to be popular, teenagers learn that being aggressive and confrontational will be more rewarded by the "in crowd" than being a good listener.

The "toughies" are thinking this column is starting to smack too much of touchy-feely stuff and telling themselves one can't be successful and survive in the jungle without being able to handle confrontation.

It is important to fight for key issues that can benefit people's lives or organizations, but too often the fighting starts before the key issues are understood. The ability to actively listen is one of the secrets to negotiating responsible solutions.

Effective listening is a learned skilled. McShane and Phillip Hunsaker, in Training in Interpersonal Skills, report on a survey completed by personnel directors in 300 organizations. It found that effective listening was ranked highest among the skills considered most important in becoming a manager.

Effective listening is often referred to as active listening -- being fully present in the conversation and paying attention not only to the words spoken, but the non-verbal signals.

When you are actively listening, you are talking 20% of the time and listening 80% of the time. In the conflict I was involved in, there was 98% talking going on and 2% listening, which resulted in about 200% confusion and a waste of valuable time spent on the wrong issues.

Another complaint often repeated in my conflict drama was "You don't understand me." How many of us have people in our lives who we feel do not understand us -- parents, spouses, bosses, friends, co-workers? Often, we are not looking for agreement or solutions in our discussions with others, but merely for a sign that our point of view is respected and understood. Particularly in conflict situations, emotion and tension can be defused by demonstrating that each party's point of view is truly understood and respected.

Listening and understanding

Actively listening and understanding of the other person's perspective happens when we:
  • Stop what we are doing and thinking about and become fully present in the conversation. The ability to tune into what the other person is saying and tune out distractions are skills that need to be developed. A way to be fully present is to make good eye contact with the person. It also makes the other person feel important.
  • Avoid interrupting. This is a toughie for me because my mind is racing on to the next point or idea I want to make instead of comprehending what the person is trying to tell me. We can focus our attention on the other person by taking some notes about what they are trying to tell us.
  • Ask questions to clarify what the person is saying. By doing this, we become engaged in the conversation and the other person feels we are interested in their point of view.
  • Give feedback by rephrasing in our own words what was heard and ask the other person to verify or clarify.

    A sage once wrote: "Nature gave people two ears but only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that they should listen more than they should talk."

    -- Vicky Smith is owner of Contact Human Resource Group, which is internationally partnered with Express Personnel Services.

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