When it comes to hiring new employees, organizations look for candidates with a combination of hard and soft skills, and according to Indeed, communication skills are at the top of the list for almost any position.
This makes sense when you consider that we spend 80% of our day in some type of communication, according to a study published in the Journal of Communication. Of that time, we spend 30% speaking, 16% reading, 9% writing and 45% listening.
As illustrated by the phrase "in one ear and out the other," listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is something that we do without thinking and without consciously trying to remember. For example, you could wake up from a loud sound at night, but that doesn’t mean you were listening for it. On the other hand, listening requires you to consciously make an effort to focus on what you’re hearing and consider it.
Because listening plays such a significant role in our communication skills and job performance, becoming a better listener can make you a more competitive job candidate. Organizations need good listeners to foster a positive and productive work environment, as even the best message fails to have any impact on someone who does not listen to it.
To become a better listener, try practicing active listening, which is a technique that involves using all of our senses to fully pay attention to a speaker. Here are some tips:
1. Minimize distractions
It’s easy to become distracted by external and internal forces such as a loud noise, sudden movement, your phone, email, stress, a headache – the list goes on and on. To minimize distractions, try putting your phone, other electronics and any distracting items out of arm’s reach or even in another room. If you’re participating in a video conference, close out your email and all other applications. A dedicated office space or meeting room can also help keep external forces at bay, especially if you train your brain to associate the area with important conversations and intense focus. For times when you need to quiet your mind and hush internal distractions, try practicing mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises.
2. Show you are listening
Actions speak louder than words, and this is certainly applicable to listening. When actively listening, you should be aware of non-verbal cues and pay attention to what the speaker's tone and body language are telling you. If someone is visibly upset or excited, your listening behavior should also reflect an appropriate response. You can show you’re actively engaged with your body language by:
- Nodding your head
- Smiling and using other facial expressions to convey emotions
- Maintaining eye contact while someone is talking
- Taking notes of key points, but not the entire time
- Verbally saying “yes” or “uh-huh” when the setting allows
3. Offer feedback
As a listener, your primary role is to pay attention to understand and retain what is being communicated to you. This sometimes requires you to ask questions, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s another way to show the speaker that you’re paying attention and that you care about what they’re communicating.
If it is appropriate, you can also give your opinion, but try not to think about your responses while the other person is still talking – it’s distracting and can inhibit your ability to actively listen. Additionally, try to limit significant emotional responses, such as anger or frustration as they can blind you from the speaker's intended message.
Some ways to provide feedback include:
- Asking for additional information or resources on specific topics
- Asking for clarity on a concept you didn’t quite understand or fully hear
- Reflecting on what has been said and paraphrasing it in your own words
- Summarizing key takeaways at the end of the conversation
To become a better listener, you must consistently practice and implement active listening in your daily routine. Here are some scenarios where you can practice active listening and other interpersonal communication skills:
- Meetings. Meetings are sometimes negatively viewed in the working world, but they don’t have to be a bad experience. By staying on task, gathering and sharing useful information, meetings can be productive. Being an active listener and participant also helps you stay engaged, even if the meeting is virtual.
- Group projects. Like meetings, group projects can sometimes be frustrating when group members don’t communicate effectively. However, 82% of employers in one survey said that working well in a team is an important skill they look for in future employees. By listening to concerns and playing to each other’s strengths, group projects can be a positive and productive experience.
- Calls. Whether it’s a meeting, catching up with a friend or even a phone interview, calls are a great way to practice your active listening skills.