The Greek Stoic Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”. It has been used as a guide to being a good conversationalist ever since, but I personally think it applies to our professional lives just as much as it applies to our personal and social selves.

Developing conscious listening skills should be a goal for anyone in business. In fact, in many business situations we are prone to discovering that listening is, actually, the silent footnote in our job description. Listening to co-workers and project managers during team meetings, to clients during business lunches, and sometimes even to competitors, can very well be the difference between a long career and a short one.

Listening is the only way to find out what you don’t know and marks the path to making better decisions and arriving at better ideas. Plus, it can lead to more effective teamwork, higher productivity, fewer conflicts and errors, enhanced innovation and problem-solving, improved recruiting and retention etc. As authors on leadership development have dutifully noted through the years, listening is not just “nice to have” but an essential component of business communication instead.

To sharpen your listening skills and wow everyone during your next meeting with your amazing use of, well, silence, do the following:

-     Develop your curiosity. Understand what you are listening to. Genuine curiosity towards what your designer has to show you or your project manager has to share with the group will open up the doors of active listening. From a client standpoint, it’s extremely important to absorb their wants and needs so they can be executed with creativity. Get interested in what’s going on in the development and design world. When you take the time to hear from others in the field, you will be opened up to new ideas and philosophies that may help you solve a problem or be more innovative in your own project. Besides reading our blog, check out a few others connecting those in design and development innovation like SpeckyBoy [http://speckyboy.com/] or WoorkUp [http://woorkup.com/]

-     Rephrase what the other person is saying as a part of your response. (e.g.: “So what you’re saying is that we should explore the untapped synergies of other programming languages as well…”) Then be quiet and allow the person to build on their idea. This forces you to concentrate and also lets the person know that you are, indeed,  listening. You understand and you’re interested. This is especially important for project managers whose job depends on a clear and comprehensive understanding of the project at hand. Devs and designers, don’t get it the first time you hear it from a PM? Here we use BaseCamp so there are open and constant methods of communication between our teams and clients. You’re much more apt to remember if you take notes!

-     Appreciate people’s differences. Acknowledge that different types of communication styles exist, both good and bad, and these may conflict with your own style of sharing information. Do not let the delivery of a particular message distract you from the point, allowing you to miss key details or necessary pieces of information. You can’t change a person's style, but if you can force yourself to hone in on these conversations and extract as much information as possible you’ll likely have fewer unpleasant exchanges in the future.

-        Set a positive example. There is nothing worse than someone whispering, squirming, talking, or otherwise being totally disruptive when someone is trying to prove a point or make himself heard and understood. Especially when the success of your position depends on being heard, like PMs, you must remember to give the same respect to each member of the team.

-        Take good notes. Try to determine the speaker’s purpose, thesis, preview, main points, support and conclusion. If possible, review the material later with the speaker or other members of the meeting to verify or modify what you heard. Follow up on any points that need clarification or action.

-        Never EVER get defensive. Say a client is dissatisfied with a product you’ve been spending sleepless nights to finish on time. The project manager is mad. A conflict arises. When this happens, our initial reaction is to get defensive, even though the conflict is most of the time situational, not personal. You need to learn to listen to the speaker’s reactions and feelings about the situation, rather than concentrating on your own anger, defensiveness and need to counter attack. Here are some ways on how to listen during conflict situations:

  • Relax and take a deep breath. Step back from the person who is speaking so that you gain control over your personal space. Stepping back physically can also help you step back mentally.
  • Don’t become defensive when the speaker focuses on you rather than on the situation. Simply acknowledge the conflict and try to bring the focus back to the situation at hand. Always be professional, never ever make use of any harsh words (profanity).
  • Listen for areas of compromise. Most conflict resolutions arise out of compromise, not consensus. Discuss what would likely resolve the issue then agree on each other’s terms.
  • Restate what the speaker said. Show you were indeed listening critically and taking in his reasons and concerns. Acknowledge your role in the conflict and point out alternatives for moving forward. Move on, learn from that experience and never take things personally.

Having good active-listening skills will make your day-to-day experiences a lot better, both for yourself and the people around you. May it be from a personal, business or professional perspective.

What positions in this market do you think benefit from high level of communication? As always, we love to hear your thoughts!