The obstacles to listening we’ve discussed so far deal with the mind and the behavior of the listener or the speaker. There are two external obstacles that are not the fault of the speaker or the listener. They are sensory overload and noise.
We are subjected to thousands of messages every day that compete for our attention and create sensory overload. These stimuli bombard us from all directions: billboards, signs, advertising, political speeches and commentary, music, weather reports, traffic alerts and continuous world news and more. Sensory overload makes it harder for us to remain focused.
Auditory noise, static or construction noise makes it extremely difficult to focus on the intended message. There are visual noises, such as dim lighting or lights from passing cars that make it difficult for you to focus. You may be able to control some noise by choice of location and timing of the meetings. Effective listening is not easy, yet it can be achieved with the consistent use of a few listening tools.
You must key on the essential points because people include a lot of extraneous information along with the essential information. The effective listener must gain the overview of the situation and subsequently ask the speaker to provide the supporting details that cannot be fully appreciated until the listener has digested the essential elements of the situation.
The listener can guide the speaker to sketch out the major issues or points and fill in the details after you have agreed on the basic facts of the matter. This helps the listener to sort and focus on the relevant information. If necessary, guide the speaker back to the relevant information courteously. You may pattern a statement such as, “This information is interesting, but I’m not sure we want to get into that at this point. For now, let’s get back to …”
If you are listening to a roundabout presentation, and you are unable to understand the point, it is entirely appropriate to ask for the point. Develop or formulate a statement similar to this: “James, I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t understand the relevance to what we are discussing. What does all this have to do with [fill in the blank]?” You may have to make several attempts to get the speaker to make the point in a meaningful way. Your investment in utilizing this tool will be rewarded by reduced misunderstandings, shorter meetings and fewer wild goose chases.
Get the Whole Message
In oral communication, words are only part of the message. Dr. Albert Moravian of the University of California, Los Angeles, has conducted research that has shown that three things determine the effectiveness of face-to-face communication. These three elements are the words that we use, how the words are used and the body language. The total message is influenced 7% by the words that are chosen, 38% by the way the words are spoken and 55% by body language.
This research tells us that the speaker’s tone may tell you as much as, or even more than, the words. In a face-to-face conversation, facial expressions, gestures, or movements may tell you much more than words alone. When you listen, pay attention to all these clues. If you suspect the speaker’s words don’t tell the whole story, follow up with questions that are designed to get the whole story.
Don’t Contaminate the Message
A listener “contaminates” a message whenever he or she says or does something that causes the speaker to modify or change the message. This happens frequently during conversations between supervisor and team member. This happens because most team members are eager to please the team leader. If a team member gets the impression that the team leader is displeased about something he or she just heard, the team member may modify the message, tone it down, omit parts of it, or change it entirely. It is human nature to want to please the team leader whenever possible. This may not always be the case but it does happen frequently.
An effective listener will realize this and try to avoid being judgmental and shutting off feedback from team members. This may not be easy, but you can use this tool effectively with some practice.
Keep Your Face Impassive
This tool requires practice and is important enough for you to invest the effort. This is important. If your facial expression shows anger or displeasure, there is a good chance you will contaminate the message. When you are listening, the only expression your face should show is interest.
We have discussed a number of techniques and tools to help improve your communication skills. This module would not be complete without listing some of the communication pitfalls that are lying in wait for us as we embark on the journey to improve communication skills. Below, we have selected eight pitfalls.
Don’t assume that others are interested in what you are saying. Here is the vital question that listeners have: (WIIFM) “What’s in it for me?” Just because you care about your idea or problem doesn’t mean others automatically do. Failing to explain the purpose and importance of the conversation at the beginning keeps people from seeing why they should care as much as you do. You won’t get people’s attention if you don’t detail how your idea will produce better results, make life easier, or improve productivity.
Don’t jump right into the “Heart” of the discussion. When you’ve immersed yourself in a topic, you tend to lose perspective. You must be aware that others may not know the topic as well or may have had their mind on something else prior to your interaction with them. If you try to save time by starting with details, you might confuse listeners and then have to backtrack. Check for how much background information listeners need so you can use your time more wisely.
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