cotton-swabs-495745_640On a busy street corner in Mumbai, India, Sayed Mehboob sits on a small wooden stool. He leans in close to his first customer of the day and inserts a metal pick into the man’s aural canal. Sayed is a professional kaan saaf wallah. He’s an ear-cleaner.

A little over 2,000 miles away in Chengdu, China, Peng Dajun arranges his ear-cleaning tools on a small table in the park where he plies his trade. Mr. Peng learned the practice from his father and is sharing what he knows to his nephew. He feels it’s important to pass along the tradition as part of his country’s cultural heritage.

Meanwhile, Mii-Chan arrives for her shift at one of Japan’s ear-cleaning parlors. For about $30, her clients enjoy tea and conversation as part of their private session. Hers is only one of over 1000 businesses offering the service.

While you may cringe at the idea of having someone else poking around inside your ears, you’ve likely found yourself wondering if a colleague could use a good swab. Adequate listening skills often seem to be in short supply. At one time or another, our coworkers, employees, and managers all seem to suffer from some kind of blockage – something that prevents them from hearing what it is you have to say.

It’s important to note that hearing and listening and very different activities. Hearing is a passive activity. It takes place when sound waves enter the ear and are converted into electrical impulses by the brain. It happens without thinking. You can’t help it. At any given moment, hundreds of different sounds assault your ears. Without even trying, you hear them.

Listening though, is not passive. In fact, it’s the opposite of hearing. You have to put in some effort in order to listen. If you’re not careful, any number of things can block your ability to listen effectively.

Your predispositions.
Your preferences.
Your prejudices.
Your priorities.
Your pride.

Yes, for listening to take place you must work at it. And you don’t need the help of a professional ear-cleaner, either. There are some very simple steps you can take.

  1. Prepare to listen. Put yourself in the right state of mind. Remove distractions and avoid multitasking. Adopt open body language and direct your full attention to the other person and what they are saying.
  2. Work at listening. Watch the other person to see how their body language enhances, or contradicts, their message. Keep yourself from interrupting. When it is your turn to talk, ask questions to clarify your own understanding.
  3. Listen with empathy. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask open questions that encourage them to fully express themselves. Be comfortable with silence as they search for the right words.

When you practice effective listening skills, you get more information, and you are better prepared to contribute to the conversation. That’s because really listening involves hearing the whole message. And remember that no matter how intently you try to listen, sometimes the message just doesn’t get through. That’s why effective listening requires constant practice.

Or you could always pay a visit to Mr. Peng.