April 11, 2016

Communication Cheat Sheet – Part 1: Listening


I was interviewed by an organizational development consultant last week who asked me to boil down all of my communication expertise and advice into what I’d include on a cheat sheet. Great question. And to my surprise, the answer occurred to me immediately: Improve your listening and nonverbal communication skills.

With every team I train and each client I coach, the pitfalls and problems show up in these two areas. The pattern is similar in leadership seminar situations, where participants voice that their greatest take-aways and points of awareness relate to the importance of listening and nonverbal communication.

While I aim to simplify communication with my cheat sheet, mastering listening and nonverbal skills is by no means simple. As Ray and Myers from Stanford University state in their book, Creativity in Business, “in practice, communication is the most complex of all complex activities of human existence.” When we know what to focus on, however, we can begin to enhance our interpersonal interactions and elevate our organizational cultures.

#1 SKILL – LISTENING: A competent professional development executive I work with is known to say that “all problems are communication problems.” I’d add to that statement that most of those problems are caused by the lack of listening, or listening at the wrong level. The costs of not listening are everywhere and include Ray and Myer’s list:

Billions of dollars of losses accumulated
Retyped letters
Rescheduled appointments
Rerouted shipments
Breakdowns in labor management relations
Misunderstood sales presentations
Job interviews that never really get off the ground

Stephen Covey’s quote succinctly hones in on the issue:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

We have some 60,000 thoughts per day, and our inner voice, aka mind chatter, aka internal dialogue, gets in the way of our ability to listen to anything but our own thoughts, judgements, questions, opinions, memories, associations, etc. This kind of listening is termed level 1 listening, and we spend most of our time in this realm. To become a better listener, thereby improving connection, understanding, personal and business success, we need to practice listening at level 2. When someone speaks to me, I picture a remote control and change the channel from 1 (inner voice) to channel 2 (sharp focus). When we listen for the speaker’s purpose, vision, values, objective, outcome, stated and unstated needs, we get out of our own way and become relaxed and resourceful communicators.

It’s not easy to tune out our internal dialogue and tune into our connection with the speaker. But simply becoming aware of the fact that we’re not listening to them, and that we’re preparing our response while they’re speaking, begins the process towards improvement in this area. Try these two listening exercises:

Listening Exercise #1:
Ask a friend or family member to speak to you for three minutes about a fabulous experience they had in the last six months. Don’t say a word while they’re talking, but raise your hand for five seconds every time your inner voice kicks in with a question, something they made you think of, etc. Use this exercise to notice, on your part, how many times you switched out of level 2 and into level 1 listening. Ask your partner in this exercise to share how having you raise your hand intermittently during their speaking impacted the interaction.

Listening Exercise #2:
Ask a friend or family member to describe a vacation they’d like to take without specifically naming the location they want to visit. Listen at level 2 (sharp focus) to all their details and cues, and when they’re done, suggest a suitable destination. Then discuss whether your recommendation was a good fit that took into account their desires and focused on their intentions. See if you made your proposal based on your experiences, background, budget and beliefs or from a deeper understanding of their vision and values.

Wow — if we each work towards becoming better listeners, so much drama and dysfunction will dissipate allowing success and satisfaction to increase. It’s a worthy investment of our time and energy. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments as you practice your listening skills, and stay tuned for next week’s second communication cheat sheet item: nonverbal skills.

Lee Broekman is a communication coach and trainer. Her company Organic Communication, brings interactive, never boring, always edifying presentations and programs — focused on communication, collaboration and innovation — to your firm or organization.

Find her latest book Successful (Happy) Lawyering on

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