I think we would all agree that the way we communicate has radically changed over the last 20 years. We have gone from snail mail to email, to text messages, to Facebook posts and comments, to tweets; from wall-jack rotary telephones to cordless phones, to satellite “brick” phones, to cellphones, to Bluetooth, to smartphones, to Facetime and video conferencing. We can transmit information every which way, but even with multiple forms of communication, we still have an understanding gap. The gap is not because we have a failure to disseminate; what we are challenged with is a failure to listen.
True communication requires effort from both parties. Whereas the sender needs to select the means of delivery as well as craft the message in a way to improve understanding, the receiver must place themselves in the best position so as to hear, listen and understand. How many parents have struggled having a serious conversation with a child who is sitting in front of a television? Just as a driver who is texting is not “listening” to the road and traffic around them, the same can be said about someone who is sitting at their computer, checking and responding to emails, having a sidebar conversation with a co-worker and “listening” to a conference call. The person is in an impossible position — there is no way for them to listen.
So how can we improve our listening? Here are four recommendations:
• Focus on a single task. I know this may be an alien and arcane concept, but eliminate distractions. If you are talking with someone, don't think about or answer texts or the cellphone call.
If you are on a conference call, close your lap/desktop and focus on the call. In short — focus! Though you may feel like you are slowing down, research shows that human beings are much more efficient at “mono-tasking” than multi-tasking. You will find that you will be able to say more in less time than it would take when you allow yourself to participate in “merry-go-round communications” (say a little something now, and then saying a little bit more later the next time the merry-go-round comes around).
• Listening — a full contact sport. Though my brother, Joey, is eight years older than I am, I can still remember how he communicated with me, his youngest sibling. When he was engaged in a conversation with me, it was a full contact sport. His whole body was listening: His eyes followed my gestures, his ears were attuned to the ebb and flow of my tones and rhythm, his posture was one that said there is nothing more I would like to do than to have this conversation. I knew that when I was talking to him that he was really listening to me and was understanding what I had to say.
His approach to listening strengthened my respect for him and helped to forge a closer relationship. Each conversation you have is an opportunity to participate in this full-contact sport.
• Create a listening environment. To improve your ability to listen and to understand, put yourself in an environment conducive to listening. For instance, where I work, our office space includes a cubicle “farm,” plus breakout rooms for individual and project team discussions. This serves two purposes: It allows a person or team to focus on their discussions, while also eliminating distractions for our fellow workers.
• Reflective listening. “Words have meaning, but only in context.” A mentor of mine told me that a long time ago. Simply translated — yes, you may have heard what was said, you may have read all that was written — but did you understand? Take the time to do some reflective listening so the meaning and message that was written or spoken is actually what was received. You'll be amazed that some/most misunderstandings occur because the meaning was lost in translation.
So the next time you are scheduling or responding to a request for a conversation, remember that what is most important is not how ardent you disseminate your message, but how effectively you listen.
Your Business Coach is a regular column produced by The Persimmon Group, an Oklahoma-based consulting firm that offers practical, results-oriented advice for business professionals of all disciplines and business owners across industries. This week's column is by TPG Consultant J. Bob Jones. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.