A lesson on listening from someone who didn't use to.

My first day of work as a junior analyst at Publicis Groupe brought with me lots of excitement and the confidence of having worked previously as a marketing manager and recently completing a graduate school. After just attaining my Master's degree loaded with advanced statistical courses I felt ready to model anything laid before me. Sadly, the weight of that same self-assurance placed a burden on my listening skills. My overconfidence made me less teachable, laying some very real obstacles resulting in some very tough first weeks. Luckily, I soon made sure to adjust that by first starting to listen.

Many people speak about listening as the natural thing to do. But hearing and listening are two different things. To listen effectively, you have to engage into a focused mental process that is far from easy. To listen effectively is especially challenging in today's fast-paced workplaces with so many people and items vying for our attention. Not only we typically have lower attention spans, but also have multiple communication channels that augment the amount of distractions we are exposed to. How can we concentrate on one person when we have so many demands that require our focus?

Listening is defined as the psychological process of receiving, making meaning of and responding to verbal messages. Just by the mere fact that we hear a message, does not mean that we have understood what is said to us and that is a clear difference between listening and hearing. Neither can we complete the process of active listening without delivering some form of feedback that indicates to the other person that the communication has been processed and understood.  

They are different ways in which we can engage in the listening process. To listen in an objective or empathetic form, to being critical or rather non-judgmental; will allow for a different experience while we process the messages given to us. In the case of someone being a non-judgmental listener, attire might not pose such a distraction from the given message as for someone who has a tendency to be a more critical listener.

When fostering healthy relationships inside and outside of work, active listening will help you the most. Active listening is described as the collective actions involved in the process of directing our attention to others. When we listen actively to someone, we let that person know that our attention is focused on them and that we understood the message given. We can achieve this by asking them questions about what was said, by avoiding distractions during the conversation or by paraphrasing the other person’s message.

When developing our listening skills in the workplace, we have to acknowledge that listening is a critical part of our role as leaders. It involves an acknowledgment of other people’s point of view so that we can improve our understanding of the problems we have to solve and expand our capacity to craft better solutions.

Are you convinced that you have to listen more effectively?

Here are some simple strategies to improve your listening skills.

Stop trying to respond before someone else is done speaking.

Sometimes the fear of not being seen as capable or being caught without the right response gets in the way of being able to understand other people's perspectives entirely. Not only this will save on future misunderstanding but will build your social capital by letting other people see that you are willing to listen to everything they have to say and that you value their thoughts and inputs into the discussion.

Ask questions

When we set our mind to ask questions to someone during a conversation, we are effectively allowing our mind to focus more on the message and we listen with intention. You will be able to capture more meaning than if we just lay back and listen passively to what is being said. By asking questions, we can enhance our capacity to listen, understand and learn. Even if it’s just as a means of validation, you will be able to convey attention and care to the person speaking with you.

Be teachable

Setting my mind to an openness to learn from others has made the biggest difference in my career. If you can implement just one of these strategies, I would suggest you go for this one. To be teachable and open to having your mind changed by others more experienced than you equates to effectively improve your chances to develop new skills and increase your ability to arrive at the best and fastest solution to solve a problem.

After becoming teachable, I learned from my colleagues and supervisor’s skills and concepts that easily superseded in utility all the fancy modeling that I learned in graduate school. By listening, I assured myself a more pleasant and cooperative environment, gained a mentor and learned the skills that serve today as the foundation for my current professional role teaching business professionals how to communicate more effectively.