Are you listening?

What is our most important skill at Zestlife?

I would argue that it’s our ability to Communicate. Followed in no particular order by administration, actuarial, legal, accounting, finance, HR, sales and marketing.

Fortunately I think most of us will agree with this (except perhaps for the actuaries, accountants and lawyers). Irrespective of industry I don’t think a successful business will exist without Good Communication as it’s a skill that impacts on every sphere of every business.

In our business good communication skills are vitally important in sales and marketing, policyholder relations, corporate planning and employee engagement and satisfaction.

A way we can immediately become better communicators is by becoming better listeners. The listening component of communication is often forgotten and viewed as a passive function which merely allows us pause to prepare for our next burst of writing or speaking. If we engage in active rather than passive listening I believe we will become so much better at supporting each other and serving our policyholders.

At school, technikons and universities we learn to write and speak efficiently on the subjects we’re taught. Companies coach executives in professional communications in order to effectively manage their staff and convey their messages. We hire external experts to craft advertising messages. Perhaps I haven’t been listening but I’ve never read about or heard of a course that teaches listening skills.

I think we need to consider the situations where we engage each other, our policyholders and suppliers and develop more effective listening habits. If we can develop skills in this regard we will significantly impact the effectiveness with which we perform our jobs and improve the relationships we have with others.

Listening is such an important component of communication. We listen to obtain information, to understand, to learn and often just for enjoyment. Now given what all that effective listening can do for us you’d think we’d be experts at it! I think we do it better than most but I still think we can make big strides in this respect. Research suggests that people on the whole only remember between 25% and 50% of what they hear. If this finding were true within Zestlife it would mean that when we’re talking to each other, our policyholders or members of our own families, we’re pay attention to them for less than half of the conversation. This is pretty dismal and it explains why I’m so often misunderstood, or worse people have no recollection of even being misunderstood at all. Clearly, effective listening is a skill that we can all benefit from and an area where we have room for improvement. By becoming better listeners, we’ll improve our productivity and our all-important policyholder relationships, which is ultimately our reason for being in business.

Through reading up on the subject I have learnt that the way to become a better listener is to practice “active listening.” This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, you try to understand the complete message being sent. In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully. You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you’ll make when the other person stops speaking.

If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them – this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused. To enhance your listening skills, you need to let the other person know that you are listening to what he or she is saying. To understand the importance of this, ask yourself if you’ve ever been engaged in a conversation when you wondered if the other person was listening to what you were saying. You wonder if your message is getting across, or if it’s even worthwhile continuing to speak. It feels like you’re talking to a brick wall and it’s something you want to avoid. Acknowledgement can be something as simple as a nod of the head or saying “Yes, I understand” or “uh huh.” You aren’t necessarily agreeing with the person, you are simply indicating that you are listening. Using body language and other signs to acknowledge that you are listening also reminds you to pay attention and helps prevent your mind from wandering. You should also try to respond to the speaker in a way that will both encourage him or her to continue speaking, so that you can get the information you need. While nodding and “uh huhing” says you’re sincerely interested, an occasional question or comment to recap what has been said communicates that you understand the message as well.

There are five key elements of active listening. They all help you ensure that you hear the other person, and that the other person knows you are hearing what they say.

  1. Pay Attention and give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognise that non-verbal communication also “speaks” loudly. Look at the speaker directly. Put aside distracting thoughts. Don’t mentally prepare a counter argument, rebuttal or my personal failing the smart Alec comment! Avoid being distracted by environmental factors. For example, side conversations. And “Listen” to the speaker’s body language.
  2. Show That You’re Listening by using your own body language and gestures to convey your attention. Nod occasionally. Smile and use other facial expressions. Note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, and uh huh.
  3. Provide Feedback. Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions. Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is,” and “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back. Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say.” “Is this what you mean?” Summarize the speaker’s comments periodically. Tip: If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so, and ask for more information: “I may not understand you correctly and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is XYZ; is that what you meant?”
  4. Interrupting wastes time and depreciates good communication. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message. Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions. Don’t interrupt with counter arguments. Should you be concerned that you’ll forget the prized counter argument you’ve hatched take brief notes to include in your response when the speaker has finished. This shows you’re listening and is a generally more respectful approach and will be appreciated.
  5. Respond Appropriately. Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down. Be candid, open, and honest in your response. Assert your opinions respectfully. Treat the other person in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated.

If we start using these active listening techniques we can greatly affect the way we interact for the better. It is a relatively easy way to make a big impact on the way we communicate with each other and our policyholders which will lead to better relationships with each other, our policyholders and suppliers. I think the same techniques will work wonders at home too.

I just hope you’ve been listening.