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Listening well goes to the heart of the professional–client relationship. Most professionals, if asked, say that they are pretty good listeners, as otherwise they would not be able to do their jobs. That is generally true. However, as with most basic skills that we take for granted, there are things that we can do to improve. Since effective communication is a two-way process it is particularly important for team leaders to listen well.

Effective listening involves hearing what is being said, understanding the message and its significance, and communicating that understanding back to the speaker. Good rapport, effective long-term relationships and working well together all depend on good listening. This is such an important part of good leadership that it is useful for us to take stock of our ability. You can test your listening skills quickly and simply by answering the following questions.

When listening to your colleagues do you frequently:

  1. think about what you want to say next rather than about what the speaker is saying?
  2. find that your mind wanders to other matters so that you miss what is being said?
  3. show impatience as you wait for the speaker to finish?
  4. interrupt?
  5. spend much more time talking than listening?
  6. misinterpret what is being said by hearing what you want to hear rather than what is meant?
  7. offer solutions to the speaker before the problem is fully explained?

show boredom?

Most of us occasionally behave in these ways. That is forgivable. If you answer yes to any of these questions, because it is a frequent problem, then you may wish to do some work on your listening skills.

The ability to listen well is clearly a valuable attribute in any walk of life. It cements relationships in families, friendships and social circles as well as in business firms. It is crucial for a professional service environment. People like to express their views on what is being done and how and why it is being done. If they don’t get a good hearing and if they feel that others, especially those with leadership responsibilities, are not really listening then morale and performance usually suffer.

Some professionals, especially those who have been rigorously trained to think and decide logically, appear rather detached. They don’t like to show their emotions. Sometimes they seethe inside about the way things are done or about relationships in the team or in the firm. As a result they may not give of their best. Aleader who really listens and is able to unravel deep-seated feelings about problems, slights and worries among team members helps in three ways. First, people get distractions off their chests. Secondly, issues that are aired are easier to resolve. Thirdly, more trust is built between the two people involved.

Here are some tips for listening effectively:

Give full attention and make sure that discussions are not going to be interrupted. Encourage the other person to talk. Show concern and interest and signal to the speaker that you are following the conversation.

Ask helpful questions – get people to elaborate by asking both open and closed questions. Open questions begin with interrogatives, ‘who’, ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’, and are useful for drawing people out. They help to get people to reveal opinions and feelings. They cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. An example is ‘What improvements in our client database would help you in your work?’ Be careful not to overuse ‘why’. It can lead to defensiveness. Closed questions that begin with verbs can be used to obtain more specific answers, for example ‘Would more information about the decision makers in our client firms be a valuable addition to our client database?’ Questions are also useful for obtaining clarification, for example ‘Could you please give me a little more background?’ or ‘Would you mind explaining that last point in a little more detail?’ Questions are important to allow us to learn more but they also demonstrate that we are listening carefully.

Summarize information received by briefly rephrasing. This shows that you are listening and that you understand what is being said. It also allows you to check that you have interpreted the message correctly.

Check understanding by asking the speaker to confirm that you have understood what has been said. Say that you haven’t followed the argument, if that is the case, and ask for clarification. It is not an admission of stupidity. It aids comprehension and demonstrates intent listening.

Be aware of your own preconceptions, keep an open mind and try to avoid interpreting messages within your own frame of reference. If, for example, there are aspects of someone’s personality that you don’t care for, you may inadvertently take less notice of that person’s case if you believe that he or she has done something wrong.