For women on a leadership track, mastering the “soft skill” of listening can play a huge role in moving ahead in your career, says Dianne Faieta, principal at Faieta & Associates and an AMA instructor specializing in communication. Being a better listener offers these potential benefits:
- Saving you and your company money, since poor listening can lead to costly mistakes
- Improving relationships between you and your staff or co-workers
- Making you look smarter, more empathetic, and more confident
- Helping you move ahead and be more successful
A manager who’s a poor listener may have strained work relationships as a result, Faieta says. She may anticipate what someone will say, only partially listen, and then offer a solution to what she thought she heard. Meanwhile, she’s missed the emotional impact of what was actually said. As a result, her direct reports think they don’t matter to her, Faieta says.
Failing to listen can lead to problems. Lyman Steil, founder of the International Listening Association, a group that promotes better listening, told the Wall Street Journal that if every worker in America made one $10 mistake a year because of poor listening, “that adds up to more than a billion dollars a year.”
Listening has worsened now that everyone is attached to their devices, Faieta says. A Millennial in one of her classes, who had come of age in the smartphone era, had always assumed it was normal for people to be texting or catching up on mail in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. “He just thought the smartphone trumped him,” she says.
By the end of the class, not only had the young businessman improved his listening skills, but he’d learned that he could ask people to listen to him, she says.
The value of good listening
Improving your listening requires knowledge, skills, and attitude, Faieta says. You have to know some things about listening—for instance, that it’s not the same thing as hearing. You have to work on your skills. And you have to want to be a better communicator. She offers these tips for becoming a better listener:
- Make sure you want to improve your skills. To improve your listening, you need to want to be better.
- Suspend assumptions, preconceptions, and judgments. Offer a solution only if that’s what the other person wants.
- Engage your empathy. Be alert to the emotional context of what the person’s saying, and watch for times when the verbal doesn’t match the nonverbal message.
- Avoid becoming defensive. When you do, listening shuts down and your mental energy is spent trying to defend yourself. Think—what can I learn from this conversation that will help me avoid “relationship residue”?
- Be an assertive listener. Many women hold themselves back by being too polite. Stop believing the old “rule” that you shouldn’t interrupt. “If it helps, think of it as ‘interjecting’ instead of interrupting,” she says.
- Listen for “selfish” reasons. Be curious. Consider that there may be free information in what the other person is saying. Or consider the long-term career benefits: How could you use this information in the future? How could this improve your working relationships?
Being a good listener is more valuable than being a subject matter expert, Faieta says. “When you are a good listener, you empathize with people…you can build a better rapport,” she says.
Our listening and our conversational styles are formed from a young age, usually in our family of origin. “That’s where we pick up our bad habits,” Faieta says. So getting better at it can be a lot of work.
But she believes anyone can learn to listen better and communicate with more confidence. She’s seen it over and over again in her classes when people apply themselves. “We can all become better listeners,” she says.
Now in its second year, AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center offers professional women a safe and supportive forum where they can share knowledge and develop new skills. Check for upcoming events and courses.