I recently gave a presentation to a room full of inside-sales people. The topic was listening. If you know me at all you know how ironic this session was for me to give. I'm notoriously distracted and a multi-tasker, probably like most of those reading this article. Listening is an art form -- like a finely tuned instrument -- and I am a "blunt instrument" most of the time. So, I explored how it is perfected by focused people who are conscious of the impact listening can have.
Listening and understanding the best ways to be an active listener are skills that will benefit you in every aspect of your life -- and one of the very few skills that can benefit you everywhere, all of the time. Unfortunately, it is becoming harder to do because of the environment we've created, one in which technology facilitates multi-tasking. That's the arch-nemesis of the active listener as it is not a natural, instinctual undertaking for human beings. Our instincts are to focus on one thing -- fight, flight or maybe snack. In today's world, we are trained to run and snack and listen to a podcast and take a call and read the news ... all at the same time.
Recognizing this inherent conflict and the challenges it represents, I studied up on the lost art of listening and learned how it can create a better work environment and better impact on our day. My research quickly led to the idea of being present.
Being present, or "mindfulness" as some people refer to it, is a hot topic, even taught in business schools. Some of the best executives in the world share success stories tied to how they are present in their meetings. They do not appear distracted. They do not appear to be wishing they were somewhere else. They are focused. They are attentive. They are listening to the people in the room, processing information and adding value to the conversation. Jeff Bezos famously talks about his "two pizza rule" for keeping a limit on the size of a meeting and not taking meetings early in the morning.
These executives are focused on the outcomes and what has to happen to create value and push their business forward. They are not distracted by notifications on their desktop. They are not looking at their phone. They are not heading off on tangents (mostly). They are aware of the goals of the meeting and they are listening to the people in the room who have offered an opinion. In short, they are present.
The skills of listening are not easily learned, but they are easy to point out. To actively be listening and demonstrate your attentiveness there are five tricks and tips you should keep in mind.
Look the Person in the Eye (Or Look at Yourself in the Eye). If you're meeting with someone in person, look them in the eye. If you're on a call, make it a video call. You are easily more focused when you can see the person and how they respond to you. You don't have to stare at them, but eye contact is an easy element of a good conversation. It means you are paying attention. Too often we look around or look past someone when speaking to them. You are likely too focused on your notes, so find someone or something like a virtual assistant to take notes for you. If you're stuck on a call, put a mirror next to your phone and look at yourself. This might sound vain or silly, but the way you look will affect how you speak and the sound of your voice. Are you smiling? Are you upset or angry? Your tone is immediately affected by the shape and position of your face. Make sure you're smiling by looking at yourself when you speak.
Summarize Key Points and Build on Them. This is another super-easy trick to follow that can work wonders on your calls and meetings. When you're focused and listening you should be able to build on ideas that are being discussed. Summarize a key point that someone just said and add something valuable to it. You don't need to do this five or six times in a meeting; even just once, if that was the key point for the conversation. Just make sure it was summarized and that you are clear for your follow up after the meeting.
Resist the Desire to Monopolize the Conversation. Too often we enter into a meeting knowing what points we want to get across and we will do anything to make it happen. This is not a good way to enter a meeting. Rather than having four to five points, enter into a conversation with one point and three to four questions to ask. By its very nature of your approach you will end up talking less and listening more. You can always provide your points in a follow-up email, but try to listen more during the conversation. If the other side is asking you questions feel free to answer them, but make sure the conversation is balanced and don't dominate the day.
Don't Judge: Nobody Benefits When You Do. Another thing we do too much of is quickly judge the other people in the room. Maybe they speak in a monotone fashion. Maybe seem to not fit the part of what you were expecting. Maybe they seem to be in the wrong room! Whatever the situation, don't rush to judge them. Everyone can have a point, and everybody has the opportunity to provide value. Focus on what is being said and whether there is something to learn or take value from. Don't worry about how the message is being delivered or by whom; focus on the message itself. If you aren't judging the people in the room, they won't feel the need to judge you back.
Last But Not Least, Follow Up. The most overlooked element of listening is your follow up. Was your follow up clear and concise? Did it successfully recap the most important moments of your meeting? If the answer was yes, then you demonstrated that you were listening. There are tools and tricks to making sure your follow up is accurate, and that, of course, includes recording your conversations. Getting get good notes can help too.
Listening is an art form. You have to turn off the distractions and focus on what's right in front of you. You have to resist the urge to not check your email and drift off on a tangent. If you are successful, your meetings will be that much more productive. I can promise you that!
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