In an age when nuanced discussion gets lost or distorted by Twitter rants and Facebook echo chambers, is anyone listening to anyone anymore?
Even in the world of project management, where communication skills are highly valued, listening skills don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. But listening is foundational to meaningful communication, and as important as speaking or PowerPointing when it comes to effective collaboration and teamwork.
“Listening is how we demonstrate that the conversation—and the other person—matters,” says Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “Listening harnesses our attention and sends the message that this person and this interaction count.”
And something remarkable frequently happens when we stop talking and listen: We learn amazing things about the people we work with.
But for a meaningful exchange to take place, actual listening, not just partial listening, is required. We have to let people talk, without interruption, and give them our precious attention. It’s a paradox of the digital age that we are all so busy sending messages that we feel like there’s no need to listen. For better conversations, make listening a priority.
Of course, when we’re constantly distracted or stressed, it’s difficult to listen, let alone to consider another perspective. But that failure is a major opportunity lost, because perspective-taking provides a host of important conversational benefits: It increases the odds of understanding, it shows respect, it keeps our minds open, and it boosts the chances that we will discover common ground.
“When we make it a habit to consider the other person’s perspective, it opens up a window where common goals and shared understanding often emerge,” Tumlin says. “And even when they don’t, people know when you are seriously considering their perspective and it encourages the building of a cornerstone of strong relationships: trust.”
Yes, listening and considering the other person’s perspective will work wonders to improve our conversations and strengthen our relationships. But something quite beneficial often happens when these two communication behaviors become habits: Good ideas start bubbling up all around us.
“We’re often so busy pushing out messages that we completely miss good ideas that waltz right up to us,” Tumlin says. “It’s true that not all ideas are good ideas, but intentional listening and perspective-taking sort out most of the shaky ideas from the valuable ones.”
When we give people our undivided attention and make a serious attempt to understand their point of view, we are often rewarded with the answer to a longstanding problem, with a key piece of information we need to resolve an issue, or with a better way of doing things that we hadn’t considered.
“It doesn’t require a lot of undivided attention to build and maintain strong relationships, but it does require some undivided attention. Good communication equals good relationships equals good life. And that’s why being fully present in our conversations matters so much.”