My wife and I were reminiscing recently about the early days of our marriage. In November, we’ll have been married 24 years and we’ve both changed a lot since saying “I do.” Sure, the physical changes are the most obvious; but most significant are the changes in how we treat each other. I must admit though, I’ve had to change a lot more than she has.
For example, I distinctly remember a conversation we had one afternoon just a few months after our wedding. I came home from work late and still had events of the day on my mind as I walked through the door. Susan immediately began telling me about her day. She followed me through the house as I pulled off my jacket and tie, quickly moving to put on comfortable clothes.
Suddenly it dawned on me that the pace of Susan’s speech was increasing. She talked faster and faster until the words practically jumbled together into nonsense. She finally stopped to inhale, gasping for breath. I looked at her and asked “Why are you talking so fast?” Her response hit me like a ton of bricks. “I have a lot to tell you, but I know that any second you’re going to tune me out.”
Wow. Before me stood the person that most mattered to me in the world and within weeks of promising to give her everything, I’d managed to renege on that promise. All she needed was for me to listen – to give her a few minutes of undivided attention – and already I’d proven unable to do it.
We humans have a listening problem. Our ears work; we hear just fine. It’s listening – an activity that takes place in the brain – that seems difficult.
Listening is often touted as a key sales skill; but it goes much further than that. Listening is a key customer service skill. It’s a key leadership skill. It’s a key relationship skill. It’s a key life skill. And as simple as it sounds, we struggle to get it right.
We live in a busy world. Information bombards us from every direction. People and email and social media all vie for our attention and there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get it all done. So we multi-task. We eat lunch while we read through email while we listen in on the conference call while we “listen” to the person that just walked into the office. But we’re fooling ourselves. Multi-tasking makes us feel better by allowing us to cross off more items on the to-do list. It helps us “get things done.” But it doesn’t help get things done right. Studies have actually shown that dividing our attention makes us less efficient than focusing on one task, or one person, at a time.
The real victims are those on the other end of the exchange. People can sense when they don’t have your full attention, just like my wife did. They can tell you’re preoccupied. And it makes them feel horrible. You’ve been there. Remember the last time you tried talking to someone who wasn’t really listening? How did it make you feel? Unwanted? Unwelcome? Unworthy?
So how do you practice listening? How do you let me know that you’re really paying attention? Let’s start with three small steps:
- Make time for me. Is now not a good time for us to talk? Then tell me so. Suggest a time when we can speak without interruption. I want your attention. I need you to listen to me. And if I’m as important to you as you say then you’ll make one-on-one time a priority.
- Look at me. Put down your cell phone. Turn away from the computer. Stop pacing around your office searching for a file related to the next meeting on your calendar. Scrape the daydream glaze off of your face and point it in my direction. If your eyes aren’t focused on me, then your brain isn’t either.
- Participate with me. Listening is not a passive exercise. It involves asking questions, clarifying, and even offering information. Body language and nonverbal matter. Head nods and robotic “uh huhs” are sure signs that your attention is elsewhere. Listening requires involvement.
I am your customer. I am your employee or coworker. I am someone significant. And what I have to say is very, very important. Are you listening? Do I have your attention? Can you hear me now?