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ACTIVE LISTENING One of the most important business communication skills you should develop is
that of active listening, which is a process requiring intention, strategy, and
follow up. “I absolutely believe people can learn listening skills,” says Cathy
Teal, owner of Firebrand Design.
Even if you have natural abilities as a great listener, you can improve your
listening skills by reading on, if only to ascertain where in the listening process
you need to work a little harder. In other words, you’ll be able to notice when
your attention most often fails. That’s an important step in strengthening your
listening skills.
Those of you who have been told that you aren’t good listeners can also
learn to develop your active listening skills, a little at a time. Simply recognizing
that listening is a process that can be broken down into stages will help you to
improve through practice.
You need to know two main points to begin thinking constructively about
listening as a skill. First, hearing and listening are not the same. Second, listening
is a process with a series of stages. Experts have been complaining about the decline of the
modern attention span, and when you consider the complexity of the stages of listening, you
can understand why. Effective listening is a process consisting of five successive stages:
hearing, perceiving, focusing attention, evaluating, and responding. 1. Hearing is a biological
activity, so you don’t have much control over it. Sound can come at you when you aren’t expecting or processing it. For example, when you meet with a client in a central office where other activities are going on, you may hear a lot of background noise (voices, the drone of a fax machine) that interferes with your attempts to listen to what your client is saying. 2. Perceiving is the stage where you start to make sense of what you’ve just heard. Your perceptions are influenced by your background and life experiences: your beliefs, attitudes, and values, as well as your mental, physical, and emotional states. For example, you might judge what a person is saying on the basis of his accent or voice pitch without fully listening to the ideas and thoughts he’s articulating. Or you are so eager to prove your own merit that you forget to listen. “Some people are so anxious to tell people what they know, they never stop to listen to their clients,” observes Phil Opp of Animation Annex. Even though your perceptions are rapid reactions to what you hear, you should practice being open-minded to the speaker’s message. Practicing can change your listening patterns. When attempting to listen actively, these two questions should help you keep on track: • “What does the speaker know that I don’t know?” • “What will I learn or gain by keeping an open mind?” 3. Focusing is dependent upon your individual attention span. Your main listening challenges are a) to increase the duration of your attention span and b) to enhance your ability to concentrate. Animations Phil Opp recommends maintaining eye contact to help you focus on what the client is saying. Your challenge is not to get frustrated or panicked when you lose your focus. That’s when you really lose your way and waste time chastising yourself. A good thing to remember is that everyone loses focus. It’s human nature to lose your concentration and regain it. Our brains avoid information overload and overstimulation by disengaging, regenerating, and turning back on. (Our television culture may have increased the frequency of the interruptions, but that’s another story.) When you catch yourself drifting, just jump in and refocus. The first way you can begin to help yourself focus better is to try to notice your patterns of shutting down. When do you tune out? Do certain ideas or interactions trigger the interruptions? How long do you remain tuned out? And are you able to refocus? (That is, do you tune back in and pick up the thread of the conversation or speech or do you fall into frustration, boredom, or fantasy, never to return?) Noticing your listening habits can help you make constructive adjustments. Those habits have been with you for many years, and you didn’t form them consciously. Tuning out may have served you well as a child and young adult, but it doesn’t serve you as a professional. In addition to noticing when you tune out (this gets easier the more you try it), you can help yourself to focus by following these strategies: • Tune out background noise • Identify the speaker’s patterns of thought and key points • Try to anticipate what will be said next • Interrupt only for clarification 4. Evaluating occurs when you apply your critical thinking skills to assess the speaker’s remarks. This stage requires your active participation. For example, you meet with a new client who claims to have ample design experience and listen to him describe his needs. As you are listening, you