How much effort do you put into listening? You’re probably not hearing as much as you think, explains Marshall Atkinson, and you’re putting your business at risk as a consequence

Communication. It is a critical component for the success of any company. Then why do so many companies I bump into handle it so poorly? It is such as basic necessity you would think that people would be better at it. One problem I see is that we’re so intent on the ‘next thing’ on our schedules, that we aren’t present in the ‘now’ in our conversations. Here’s where building active listening skills in your company can pay off handsomely.

So, what is active listening exactly? Active listening focuses on hearing what people are really saying. It is all about shutting up. It’s hard to do. I’ve been studying active listening for years now, just in how I talk to people. Am I an expert? No. Like anything it’s a work in progress. And trust me; I have a hard time shutting up too. However, I do know that these skills work for me. You have to focus on how your teams communicate in order to be more efficient and effective.

Your customer base is the lifeblood of your business. They trust you for professional guidance and knowledge as you are the expert. As experts, we can position ourselves to teach our customers about the industry and strengthen our relationship with them. This is a tool you can use to sell beyond the price list.

Here’s how to become a great active listener:

Pay attention You can’t do two things at once. So, Mr Sales Guy, when you pick up your phone to read a text or e-mail instead of engaging with me in the conversation we are having, you are not listening. It signals that whatever you are doing is more valuable than what I’m saying. Being an active listener means giving the speaker your undivided attention. Focus on the words that are being communicated to you.

Look at the speaker directly Active listeners can also pick up some good non-verbal factors by noticing their body language too. Don’t be distracted by noise, motion or other elements in your environment. Your job is to just listen to what the speaker is saying. Don’t start framing your side of the conversation yet! Just listen and comprehend.

Show off those listening skills Conversations are two sided. If you are doing something when the conversation starts, stop. Turn and face the speaker. Open body language is important for engagement.

Some other ways you can show you are paying attention would be to take notes or repeat back to the speaker what you have heard. It is critical you get the message right, as your ability to take in information and process it for your company could be the factor in the effectiveness of other teams on your staff. This is why they do this in restaurants: they want to get your order right.

If you had an important phone conversation, a fantastic tip for ensuring you have heard and understood the conversation is to send a follow up email shortly after the phone conversation ends. Document what you heard and any action items that need to be detailed. If anything was missed or needed to be fleshed out, this can provide the vehicle for that step.

Listen, then talk The natural part of conversations will, of course, have you talking sooner or later. The hardest part for me is to wait until the other person is finished speaking as I want to get my thought into the conversation. Over the years I’ve resolved to be more patient and just let the other person speak. Pause. Then answer. This technique has helped my interpersonal skills immensely. Try it!

When things are bad and there’s some drama, one of the best tools you can use to calm things down is to just listen to the other person. Completely understand why they are upset and show some empathy. You don’t have to agree with whatever they are saying, that’s not the point. Listening shows you care. Listening is going to help deflate the tension and ease the frustration someone may be experiencing. Again, if you repeat back to the person details from their story they know that you heard and understand them. This is crucial when dealing with drama-filled challenges.

Don’t anticipate Because we’re smart people we can sometimes anticipate where the conversation is heading and what the other person may be trying to say. This is a mistake. I’ve been accused of often hearing faster than people can talk. While you think you may know what they’re going to say and your brain races ahead and starts forming your answer, the reality is that something else is being said and you aren’t getting the point. Active listening is about just focusing on the present and not racing ahead.

Slowing down helps Don’t think about that conference call in ten minutes or wonder why they can’t get to the point more quickly. Just be present in the moment and listen to the words as they are being spoken. Sure, you may know something about what the person is saying, but if you let them finish you might hear a key new fact, or how something impacts them personally.

Pause and then respond It may seem overly dramatic, but this really helps with listening. Take a short moment to make sure whatever you are going to say is the correct response, and then say it. Ask deeper questions. Have more meaningful dialogue. Active listeners are in tune with the other person in the conversation, and often will pick up or find some nugget that they can use that will stimulate the discussion further. It’s because they are paying attention and listening to every detail instead of being halfheartedly present in the conversation.

Body language I spoke earlier about demonstrating open body language in a conversation and I’d like to add a few points. Your gestures, stance and how you carry yourself all impart meaning to the conversation.

Are you the boss and when someone comes into your office you have an entire conversation without looking up from your computer screen? Whether you know it or not, you are being dismissive to that person and saying that what you are looking at on the screen is more important than whatever they are going to tell you. Sooner or later this may cause some resentment or other problems with your relationships with your staff as they don’t think you listen or care about them. Just stop for a moment, turn and face them and be receptive.

Do you fold your arms across your chest? While this may be comfortable for you (it is for me), this suggests that you are defensive and not interested in what someone may be saying. Sit up or stand straight, and find another comfortable position for your hands.

The best body language is to square off with the person you are speaking to with your hands and arms open. Look them in the eye when speaking. And if you can, smile. A smile always goes a long way.

Your business toolbox

Developing your active listening skills can be a great way to augment your business toolbox for success. Sure, it may seem a little dumb to be thinking people don’t know how to listen or talk to each other. However, if you start paying attention to how other people engage in conversations you start to notice that most people are horrible at it. Why didn’t that order ship on time? How come some of your staff didn’t start using the new policy? Why didn’t you close the sale? Maybe it’s because nobody was listening to all the details and something was missed. Paying attention matters.

For the rest of the day watch people around you engaging in conversations. Look at their body language. Do these people work for you? How do you think they engage with your staff or, worse yet, your customers? Do you think that this affects your bottom line? Can you name an instance where something didn’t happen correctly because some details were missed? Start asking why that happened and you may see that it’s part of poor communication. We all can do better, you just have to try.

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.