We live in a 24/7, “always on” society. The boundaries between our home and personal lives are more blurred than ever before. With the rise of the internet and its plethora of social networks, there is barely a second in any given day when we are not being bombarded with information, communications and a blur of white noise.
This doesn’t change when we’re physically at work, either. Most of us will have a laptop and a mobile phone on the go as a minimum when it comes to technology. Many of us will work in open plan offices. Whether it’s an endless email trail, hard to ignore instant messages which pop up in the corner of our screen, or a face to face conversation which takes place at our desk, in a meeting room, or on an ad hoc basis while we’re making a coffee… communications are relentless.
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Now, don’t get me wrong. To an extent this is a positive. We’ve all had it drummed into us just how important it is to ensure we communicate effectively. But the word communication is in itself an interesting one. For too many of us, it has become one way. When we think about communicating, we think about talking. Emailing. Presenting.
We rarely remember that a vital part of effective communication is also to listen.
Listening is becoming, in my opinion, a dying art form. Perhaps in part this is because it’s seen as a softer skill. We’ve had it drummed into us for so long that to be successful we must demonstrate harder, extroverted qualities, that the softer skills can often be dismissed. But I can promise you right now, that in every single business there are opportunities which are being missed, issues which are arising, and employees who are unhappy… simply because of the fact that no one is listening.
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You might be thinking: Well of course I can listen. It’s just a case of being quiet while someone else is talking. How hard can it be? It is important to remember though that there is a huge difference between active and passive listening.
The passive listener sits in a room while someone else is talking. They might occasionally nod their head in acknowledgement, or doodle a note on the pad in front of them.
Are they truly listening? Unlikely. Do they care what the person talking has to say? Almost certainly not. They are listening because they have to, as opposed to because they see the value of it.
The active listener seeks out opportunities to invite people to talk to them. They will encourage it, with the use of phrases such as “Talk to me”, and “Tell me how you are doing”. When the person does speak, it is clear that they are not simply listening: they are engaged in listening. They encourage them to speak openly. They are comfortable in allowing periods of silence, which they don’t rush in to fill. They are not listening because they have to, they are listening because they want to. And believe me, the difference between having a listener who has to listen to you, and a listener who wants to listen to you, is enormous.
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Why do we need to listen more? Well, in a world of non-stop communications, it is becoming harder and harder to be heard. There is a danger for all of us that we allow the most vocal in our organisations to become the de-facto spokespeople for the silent majority. When we do so, we stop seeing the true picture. And, at the same time, we create a self-fulfilling cycle. The silent majority feel even less able to speak out. Their issues and concerns become exacerbated. They disengage. The issues spiral. And the employee experience of our business is severely damaged as a result.
If you are a line manager, or if you interact in any way with people, either in your work or personal lives, I would urge you: if you do nothing else, please, listen. Make listening a priority. Invite people to come and talk to you. If you can show them you’re interested, that you care, that you can help them to make a difference… then they will do it again. And again. People remember those who have taken time out to genuinely listen. Not only that, it means that when your time comes to need a listening ear… they will be there.