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Francis Wade | Rescue low followership with advanced listening skills

Published:Sunday | August 30, 2015 | 8:00 AMFrancis Wade

Executives are often amazed to discover how much they can accomplish with advanced listening skills.

Unfortunately, the path to developing them is shrouded in mystery, resulting in a numbing mediocrity that undermines their best efforts.

If you are an executive, or a professional who aspires to top leadership, you are likely to be blessed with great analytical skills. Plus, you may have the ability to think on your feet and quickly put thoughts into words. You are also driven to communicate in powerful ways, recognising the critical need for a leader to develop committed followers.

If you happen to be a leader who is unable to develop the 'followership' you'd like, you probably aren't thinking of fixing the problem with better listening skills.

Perhaps, like many, you assume that they are easy to learn, and not that important. You may believe that you are better than your colleagues, trusting that you wouldn't be where you are in your career if you weren't already well above average.

However, consider that the popular definition of 'listening' in a two-person conversation is limited. Most people define listening to be more or less the same as 'hearing'. In other words, if you have heard all the words the other person has said, then that's the same as having good listening skills.

That's a mistake.

Unfortunately, if you are a smart ambitious person, you may be pretending to listen. See if this fits: While the other person is talking, your bright mind races along, assessing multiple thoughts in a flash. You fill the gap between the end of your last sentence and the start of the next one with your own thoughts. Their voice is little more than background noise.

Therein lies the problem. When you are caught up in your thoughts, you aren't actually listening - not in a deep way. Instead, you are multi-tasking - giving only what's called 'continuous partial attention'. In other words, you are switching your attention between your thoughts and their words. At your worst, a tiny fraction of your attention is on the other person - your thoughts are far more interesting.

If you have ever been accused of not listening by someone you may be guilty of this habit, which some call 'pausing to reload'.

Perhaps you defended yourself by repeating every word the other person just said, maybe without skipping a beat. However, this represents the lowest level of listening I mentioned before - 'hearing'.

According to a number of studies, full communication involves a wider blend of channels: 55 per cent relates to body language; 38 per cent to tone of voice; and only seven per cent to the words spoken.

TUNE IN TO THE TALKER

Take this research to mean that when someone reduces communication to just a bunch of spoken sentences they may be missing out on the 93 per cent that's not resident in the words.

Based on this finding, here is one expanded way to listen that is far more powerful, and actually builds followership: Listen to leave the other person satisfied.

If you can leave someone in a conversation with the experience of 'being heard' you have given a shared gift.

This is no generic, fleeting emotion. When the experience takes place for both people, there is a deep sense of fulfilment and connection. It is a oneness that is often present when people fall in love, become good friends in a click or come up with a brilliant idea for a new business.

By contrast, when one or both people feel as if they are not being heard, the outcome is disastrous. Lots of words get repeated. War breaks out.

Fortunately, there are simple techniques to use as remedies. After you have paraphrased their words aloud, just ask: Am I getting all that you are saying? Then pause, listen and watch to see if they think that you are capturing their words, emotion and intent. Tune into your inner guidance to detect any discrepancies or inconsistencies.

Another useful technique is the practice of meditation. In most forms of the discipline, you learn to ignore your inner thoughts and bring your attention to a single point of focus. Without suppressing any given thought, you train yourself to retain a laser-like focus. In a conversation, this point of focus happens to be the other person and the message they are trying to communicate.

Unfortunately, these are techniques you are unlikely to use under pressure. For example, recall the last time you were verbally attacked. It may be hard to imagine yourself paraphrasing or granting laser-like attention in that episode.

The good news is that the techniques associated with advanced listening are especially suited for these difficult interactions. Using them involves deliberate practice sessions that might be uncomfortable, but build invisible muscles.

After all, Serena Williams and Chris Gayle take their time on the practice court or in the nets seriously. So should you if you are serious about developing advanced listening skills and employee followership.

Francis Wade is the author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity' and a management consultant. For a free summary of past articles, send email to: columns@fwconsulting.com