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Effective listening strengthens organizational relationships, alerts the organization to opportunities for innovation, and allows the organization to manage growing diversity both in the workforce and in the customers it serves.33 Companies whose employees and managers listen effectively are able to stay informed, up, to date, and out of trouble. Conversely, poor listening skills can cost companies millions of dollars per year as a result of lost opportunities, legal mistakes, and other errors. Effective listening is also vital to the process of building trust between organizations and between individuals.34

Listening is one of the most important skills in the workplace, but most people don’t do it as well as they assume they do.

Recognizing Various Types of Listening

To be a good listener, adapt the way you listen to suit the situation.

Effective listeners adapt their listening approaches to different situations. The primary goal of content listening is to understand and retain the information in the speaker’s message. With this type of listening, you ask questions to clarify the material but don’t argue or judge. Try to overlook the speaker’s style and any limitations in the presentation; just focus on the information.35

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The goal of critical listening is to understand and evaluate the meaning of the speaker’s message on several levels: the logic of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the validity of the conclusions, the implications of the message for you and your organization, the speaker’s intentions and motives, and the omission of any important or relevant points. Be on the lookout for bias that might color the way the information is presented, and be careful to separate opinions from facts.36 (Note that “critical listening” does not mean you are listening with the intent to criticize, but rather to understand the full meaning and implications of the speaker’s message.)

The goal of empathic listening is to understand the speaker’s feelings, needs, and wants so that you can appreciate his or her point of view, regardless of whether you share that perspective. By listening in an empathic way, you help the individual release emotions that can prevent a calm, clear-headed approach to the subject. Don’t jump in with advice unless the person asks for it, and don’t judge the speaker’s feelings. Instead, let the person know that you appreciate his or her feelings and understand the situation. After you establish that connection, you can then help the speaker search for a solution.37

No matter what mode they are using at any given time, effective listeners try to engage in active listening, making a conscious effort to turn off their own filters and biases to truly hear and understand what the other party is saying. They ask questions or summarize the speaker’s message to verify key points and encourage the speaker through positive body language and supportive feedback.38

Understanding the Listening Process

Listening is a far more complex process than most people think—and most of us aren’t very good at it. People typically listen at no better than a 25 percent efficiency rate, remember only about half of what’s said during a 10-minute conversation, and forget half of that within 48 hours.39 Furthermore, when questioned about material they’ve just heard, they are likely to get the facts mixed up.40

Why is such a seemingly simple activity so difficult? The reason is that listening is not a simple process, by any means. Listening follows the same sequence as the basic communication process model you explored in Chapter 1 (page 9), with the added difficulty that it happens in real time. To listen effectively, you need to successfully complete five steps:41

Listening involves five steps: receiving, decoding, remembering, evaluating, and responding.

Receiving. Physically hear the message and recognize it as incoming information.

Decoding. Assign meaning to sounds, according to your own values, beliefs, ideas, expectations, roles, needs, and personal history.

Remembering. Store the information for future processing.

Evaluating. Analyze the quality of the information.

Responding. React based on the situation and the nature of the information.

If any one of these steps breaks down, the listening process becomes less effective or even fails entirely. As both a sender and a receiver, you can reduce the failure rate by recognizing and overcoming a variety of physical and mental barriers to effective listening.

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