Every day at work you are expected to give and receive information. Your education and experience have probably prepared you well to read, write and speak. Yet have you learned to be a good listener?
Many professionals in business, nonprofits and government haven’t. They may miss out on the benefits that come with open-minded listening — better collaboration, problem solving, and productivity and higher profits, to name a few.
Ellen Kandell, an experienced mediator and attorney, knows all about this. As president of Alternative Resolutions, LLC, she resolves disputes such as teamwork challenges, public policy matters and threatened and pending lawsuits. Here’s a conversation Ellen and I recently had about the benefits of good listening.
Q: Why is listening so underrated?
A: Hearing and listening are different, but if people can hear, they seem to take listening for granted. I don’t think the public is generally aware of the importance of listening. If they were, I wouldn’t see some of the conflicts that reach my office.
Q: What do we most need to know to improve our listening?
A: Listening is an interactive process. The speaker and the listener must be equally engaged and open to each other’s messages.
Also, many people have heard the statistics showing that when we speak, we communicate far more nonverbally through body language and tone of voice than we do in words. But I don’t think most people are aware of how nonverbal signals affect listening.
Q: What are some non-verbal indicators of good listening?
A: You want to sit facing forward in your chair, leaning in a little bit to show you are engaged. Make direct eye contact. Keep an open posture with your arms on the table or down on your lap, not crossed over your chest defensively. Use an open, even tone of voice.
Listening is often more effective when done face-to-face because of these non-verbal elements. Face-to-face discussions may be more rare today, so it’s even more vital to be conscious of being fully attuned when you are communicating.
Q: What can be done when adversaries have fixed ideas about one another?
A: Often two people in disagreement have labeled one another. They have developed a narrative about the other person that blocks open-minded listening. You need to be honest about what you are doing or thinking when you start to listen. Listeners and speakers both must try to truly understand the other’s message and be able to interpret and respond without judgment.
Q: You aim to redefine the way people and organizations handle conflict. How?
A: Conflict doesn’t have to be a destructive force. As a mediator, my job is to listen to both sides and guide them toward a solution. Then conflict becomes a vehicle for change and growth.
In disputes where conflicting parties are considering going to court, it’s so important to try to make peace rather than quickly filing a lawsuit. With the assistance of a neutral third-party such as a mediator, people are more likely to identify common interests such as operating their companies more efficiently and developing options that meet their common goals. Through the facilitated dialogue in a mediation, they can find reason to listen to one another, analyze where conflicts have developed and find constructive ways to cope.
Many businesses, non-profits and government agencies could improve the way they react to conflict by following a similar pattern. Think about what your organization has to gain by enhancing the way it listens to employees, stakeholders, customers, supporters and competitors.