Skills 360 – Communication Skills 1: Listening

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how you can improve your communication skills.

We spend a lot of time looking at different ways that you can make other people understand your ideas. But what about your ability to make sure you understand what other people are saying? Some people say that there’s a good reason we have two ears but one mouth: because we should spend twice as much time listening as we do speaking. And countless business leaders have emphasized the importance of good listening skills as the foundation of good communication.

Okay, but listening and understanding are not always easy. We’ve all found ourselves in situations – it could be a meeting, a presentation, an interview, or a negotiation – where we think “what did he just say?” or “what was that word?” Well, for starters, we need to accept that we might not understand everything. That’s not necessarily a problem. But what you do when you don’t understand something is what separates a good listener from a bad listener.

You see, it wouldn’t always be a good idea to stop a speaker and say “what was that word you just used?” Or “can you repeat that sentence?” If you didn’t catch something, well, get over it. And fast. You don’t have time to stop listening and think about what something means. And you don’t have time to translate either. You’ll get lost, and it will be difficult to get your head back into what you’re supposed to be listening to. Instead, you need to grab onto what you do understand, and then fill in what you don’t with logical guesses.

What you should be shooting for, first and foremost, is the gist of what’s being said. That means the main idea or underlying point that the speaker is trying to make. Details will support that main idea, and if you don’t catch them all it’s not the end of the world.

Okay, but how do we catch the gist? Well, one way is to focus on key words. Key words are the words that we understand that show the central message. They provide direct clues to the main idea. So if you hear someone say “blah blah new plan blah blah blah terrible idea blah blah blah can’t support blah blah blah”, then you have a good idea what the person is saying without understanding all the “blah blah.” If you focus on the “blah blah,” however, you might miss those important words that you do understand.

Another thing to remember is that people often repeat or explain their ideas further. If you don’t understand an idea right away, just be patient. The speaker might explain what she means, or give an example, or repeat the idea in different words. But if you get hung up on not understanding the first statement, you risk confusion. Here’s an example: say you’re listening to someone give a presentation on the latest sales figures, and he says “The last quarter was particularly disconcerting.”

Now, do you know what “particularly disconcerting” means? If not, don’t worry too much. Because the speaker will probably go on to explain or give examples. He might say something like this: “Our electronics division was down 13%. Mobile was down 16%. And automotive was down a whopping 24%.” Now, you can probably guess that “particularly disconcerting” is negative, right? But if you stopped listening and started wracking your brain to figure out what it meant, then you might have missed the explanation.

Of course, sometimes there are things that you hear that provoke questions that you need answered. That does certainly happen. And in those situations, the best thing to do is to write them down. You can make a note of a couple of important words, or write down an entire question. Then you can follow up on the matter later. And because you’ve written it down for later, you can put it aside at the time and keep listening.

So let’s do a quick review of what we covered here and see how well you were listening. Remember to accept that you might not be able to understand everything. Don’t stop listening when something you don’t know comes up, just keep trying to get the gist and the key words. And be patient because sometimes explanation or repetition can clear things up for us. And finally, make notes if you have to. Now, will these strategies guarantee that you understand everything perfectly? Of course not. Sometimes we need to ask for clarification, and if you tune in next time you’ll hear some tips for doing just that.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.