From the Desk of the Director

Author: Kim Patton

My 10-year-old son Alex came to me one day last spring and asked me to teach him to play golf.  I was so excited to hear this, as I LOVE golf.  I’ve been golfing since I was 12 years old (5, if you count miniature golf). 

We arrived at the golf course and I led Alex to the putting green.  He did really well for not having golfed before.  We moved onto the driving range and, to my amazement, Alex drove the ball fairly well.  Now it was time to head to the course and play nine holes.  I helped Alex line up to hit the ball.  Whiff! 

I told Alex don’t worry about it, everyone does that, just keep your head down.  He swung again, and another miss.  After three more misses, I began to get a little frustrated because he didn’t seem to be paying attention.  My instructions became more curt and direct, and Alex started to get frustrated. Finally, he shouted, “I know I’ll never be as good as you, Mom!” 

Whoa!  What was I doing?  I’m making this more about me than about showing Alex that golf can be fun, which was my initial intent.  I wasn’t really listening to what Alex really needed – more patience and guidance, rather than a lecture on keeping his head down.  Plus, Alex was nervous, not only golfing in front of me, but the other golfers on the course. 

I was doing the one thing I never should do: forgetting the needs of my audience.  Hello, communications 101!  I was reacting to how I was feeling instead of thinking. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to skip the thinking part. An employee comes to us with substandard work and we get angry. But is that really going to help the employee do better work next time? Poor performance is rarely caused by lack of fear. It's usually because of a misunderstanding or lack of capability. Of course asking questions would almost certainly be more helpful. 

Many people respond with anger when they are angry, and frustration when they are frustrated. Those are natural reactions, but they are not effective..  Peter Bergman, CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., writes in his blog for Harvard Business Review that the simple solution when you have a strong reaction to something is to take a deep breath and ask yourself, what’s going on with the other person?  Then based on your answer, ask what can you do that will help.  Start from where they are, not where you are. 

Effective communication begins with effective listening , not just hearing. If you are a parent, you definitely know the difference.  But we as managers make the same mistake when our employees talk with us.  Do we really take the time to actively listen to what our employees are really saying? 

According to Lynda Ford, author of Transform Your Workplace, active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that improves overall understanding. Of all the skill sets you can bring into the workplace, active listening is by far the most important. Whether engaging in one-on-one conversations, participating in meetings or even interviewing a potential candidate, people who master active listening skills will be more effective in everything they do.  Below is a great quote from Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline on active listening:

“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words.  You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking.  You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is.  Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in.  Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.”

So if active listening is the key to effective communication, why don’t more people do it?  Some may not know how, and some may not care.  However, active listening can be easily mastered by paying attention to such things as eye contact, facial expression, body posture, gestures and voice, and then reflecting on the true message being conveyed.  The majority of our communication is non-verbal, so it is important your body language is consistent with your verbal message.  For example, if you are engaged in a conversation with your employee, but keep looking back at your computer, you send the message that there are more important things than the current conversation which leads a breakdown in communication.

Reflecting includes two skills: repetition and paraphrasing.  Repetition occurs when the listener gives back to the speaker exactly what has been said.  Paraphrasing, the more powerful of the two, puts the speaker’s message into the listener’s own words and accurately feeds back to the speaker.  Paraphrasing allows listening with feelings and is more effective with people.  No one wants to have a robotic boss just repeat their exact words.  It’s very similar to toddlers repeating their parents’ exact words, especially words that should not have been said.  It might be cute when kids do it, but it’s annoying to get that treatment from adults.

We all need to continuously practice active listening skills, whether at work, with friends or with family.  The following active listening activities from can help experienced managers have better relationships with employees.  Start from the top and work your way down and spend more time on the activity that challenges you the most.  Master one activity before moving onto the next.  It may seem simplistic, but it is effective.  Don’t knock it until you try it.  It will surprise you on how much active listening you don’t do. 

Activity 1: Find a place where you can be alone. Start listening to all the sounds around you. Identify them one after another. Humming sounds, noises, traffic and any other sounds that come your way. When you notice your thoughts drifting away from the sounds, shift your attention back. Keep doing this until you can stay focused on sounds for a minute or longer.

Activity 2: Find a place where you’re surrounded by people. Listen to their voices, try making sense of what they’re saying. Shift your attention from one group of people to the next, always trying to make sense of what they’re saying. The point of this activity is to exert control on how you focus and shift your attention at will.

Activity 3: Still surrounded by people, focus on each person’s mood. No need to focus on their voices, just focus on the person’s demeanor and try to figure out what mood they are in. The point of this activity is to be able to control how you focus any and all of your senses, which in turn sharpens your ability to listen.

Activity 4: Let’s start bringing all of the listening skills together. The next meeting you attend, try the following: Focus on what each person says, without rehearsing what you’re going to say next. Focus on each person’s mood and demeanor. You can try paraphrasing or reflecting what people say - if appropriate.

Activity 5: This is the most complex of the active listening activities, because you’ll listen while talking. Well, not exactly. You first listen, then talk, then listen, then talk. You switch back and forth between talking and listening. The next time you give a presentation to a small group of people, focus your attention on (1) the message you’re giving and (2) each person in the audience: their mood, their words, their facial expressions, and their nonverbal behavior. You may be tempted to focus on the message only, or on yourself and how you’re delivering the message. Instead, try focusing on the message and each person in the audience. Being able to both talk and listen is the mark of a master communicator. This ability will give you access to understanding people and connecting with them in very powerful ways.

Each of us can benefit from better communication in our work environments, with friends and with family. And with active listening, you're in control. You can take the initiative to build a better communication infrastructure, starting today!