Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Students and executives arrive in my classes and workshops with a desire to improve their communication skills. Without exception everyone wants to get better at sending messages either written, verbal, or nonverbal. However, too much emphasis on the sender misses an essential component of the communication process: listening.
Educators may not be helping the cause. For example, communication instructors spend so little time on listening instruction compared to speaking. In fact, listening was found to be a learning goal at fewer than 15% of accredited business schools, while more than 75% include presenting as a learning goal. This disparity exists despite many empirical studies that suggest listening is more important to successful job performance than presenting.
The following Google search results highlight the availability of speaking resources over listening:
“Improve public speaking” returned 118,000 results
“Improve active listening” returned 4,490 results
Most of us prioritize speaking or over listening. We desire to influence others, but don’t realize that listening can be the most effective path to persuasion. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, writes, “A leader’s ability to achieve results has a lot more to do with listening and seeking to understand than it does telling people what to do.” Listening allows us to gather information, build relationships, and establish reciprocity.
Before presenting your case, collect as much information from your target audience as you can. The authors of Difficult Conversations suggest keeping the focus on the other person requires curiosity and the ability to keep the spotlight on them. They write, “People almost never change without first feeling understood.” The most important skills in this stage of the process are asking thoughtful questions and listening.
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Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference, reminds us that the person who controls the conversation isn’t the person talking, it’s the person who is listening. Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, concurs, “Listening to people helps them pour out a little of their current thinking so they can make room for new thinking.” And sometimes, Simmons notes, giving people space to listen is enough for them to change their own mind.
As you collect information to help you develop a stronger argument, you are simultaneously disarming the other person. When you demonstrate empathy and show a sincere desire to better understand the other person, you build trust. Voss suggests this approach appeals to our universal desire to be understood and accepted. Think about your own life for a moment. Who are the people you feel most connected to? I suspect it’s the people who you make you feel heard.
When you listen to others, you increase the chances they will listen to you. However, when you focus too much on speaking, the other person will do this same. The idea that we respond to positive actions with positive actions and negative actions with negative actions speaks to the well-documented practice of reciprocity. Communication breaks down when we are busy preparing what we plan to say next. You have the power to change the nature of the communication situation by simply listening.
In my courses, I emphasize the importance of developing a presentation preparation process. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to help others develop a listening preparation process. Just like speaking, listening is a skill you can develop. And like other skills, listening requires practice. While everyone is thinking about what they plan to say, you might find greater success in spending time planning how to listen.