“The reason that we have two ears and one mouth,” said the Greek philosopher, Zeno, “is that we may listen the more and talk the less.”
Of the top five areas employees feel management needs to improve, listening skills consistently ranks near the top. One of the reasons that all of us tend to struggle in this area (according to other’s assessment; rarely do we see the need) is that our mind works five to seven times faster than our mouths can possibly work.
Often, we are so far ahead of the speaker, lingering on the another agenda, or worse, off on a mental excursion that we don’t even hear, much less listen. And the sheer pace of the normal, hurried workplace speeding along somewhere near the speed of light aggravates the situation: we feel that we don’t have time to listen to others. Of course, we always have time to do the work all over again because of our haste and poor listening resulted in misunderstanding.
The costs of poor listening are staggering – rework, missed deadlines, poor employee satisfaction and employee relations, lost sales, and compromised customer relations. In business, poor listening can be very expensive. We don’t just miss hearing what our team members want, but what the boss wants, and what customers want.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re managing, negotiating, supervising, or selling – you’re going to be more effective by listening than by talking. Personally, I ultimately judge people more by their questions and listening skills than by what they have to say.

The Crux of the Problem
Retired Supreme Court Judge, Louis Brandeis once remarked, “Ninety percent of the misunderstanding of this world result from one person failing to appreciate the facts to which the other seem important or failing to appreciate their point of view.” Doesn’t that sum it up? Think about it.
If you truly feel that I appreciate, can empathetically see, and fully comprehend your point of view, you are much likely to, well, not sue me for one – but more so, at least be open to my viewpoint.
Here is a fundamental question to ponder: Is there a difference in “Listening to Respond” versus “Listening to Understand?” Most people reply in a few seconds of reflective thought, “Yes, there’s a difference!”
When we are in the normal mode of listening (to respond), we can’t wait for the other person to shut-up (sometimes not waiting for them to finish, called “interrupting”) so that we can impart our two cents worth. We act as if we could care less whether we accurately demonstrated that we comprehend their message AND, often their feelings behind the message.
Listening to understand, on the other hand, seeks first to fully understand the other person’s viewpoint BEFORE replying or responding. This type of listening implies that you must question to gain clarification, and parroting back what you have heard to insure you got the intended message. People don’t always say what they mean, and they need help from you to commune their thoughts and feelings with you.

Medicine for What Ails Ya
The author, Steven Covey, said it best in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek FIRST to understand BEFORE being understood. This means that we reserve our next speaking turn for clarifying what the person is telling us, often with additional, illuminating questions to distill the true meaning of what they are saying, rather than blathering our own opinions, viewpoints and vast quantities of acquired knowledge.
Simply put, superb listening requires a mental discipline uncommonly found in most people. Note how poor self-esteem contributes to poor listening skills. These people are so focused on “me” – how I look and what I’m going to say next – that they can’t possibly focus on you and your message.
When tempted to speak or talk at someone, ask an open-ended question instead so that you speak with them. Questions that start with “Who, When, How, Why, Where and What..?” bring you more eventual rapport, cooperation and respect than trying to impress people with what you know.
The simple clarifying question, “How do you mean?” opens the door for greater understanding – especially in emotionally laden situations. Rephrasing statements like, “What I hear you saying is …” helps better insure that you are listening to understand, and closing the loop with affirming feedback.
Get in the practice of pausing after someone finishes speaking. The urge to fill the silence can be almost irresistible. Speak “with” people and not “to” people.

ET, Phone Home
A superb place to begin your new awareness of the need for greater listening is at home. It is amazing, and perplexing, to me to note that at work, I can be a relatively good listener. Then I go home to the person who means most to me in the world, and it all goes out the window. Try it with loved ones, family members or friends first.
Take a little “ET” or Extra Time to listen and you will be amazed at how levels of cooperation, feelings of goodwill, and spirit of oneness can prevail. Love is a four letter word spelled, T-I-M-E.
Incidentally, be aware how often you hear (or say), “Yes, BUT …” or start sentences with the word, “But….”
When you say, “Yes, but..,” you are really saying, “I either didn’t hear what you just said,” or “I don’t really care what you just said, and by the way, here’s my humble but accurate opinion.”
The word, “but” was originally meant to be a conjunction in proper English language terms, BUT many of us greatly overuse the word. We are not even aware of the effect it has on our listeners – of it quickly constructing invisible, thick concrete walls of resistance or worse, resentment between you and your listeners. By the way, the 25 cent word, “However…” is just a chocolate-covered “But,” so don’t use it either.

Management is about leadership. One of my favorite quotes is, “There go my people; I must find out where they are going so that I can lead them there!” Well, the only way to lead them is by asking lots of questions and then listening intently to them. Make better listening a goal of yours for this year. And here’s how to start: at home.

Ask your spouse or significant other, “How would you rate the quality of our relationship (or marriage) on a scale from 1-10, five being average?” Then wait for an answer. Of course, the next question is, “What are your suggestions to get us closer to ten?”

Now, whatever your partner shares with you about why they rated the score, do NOT get defensive. If you do, it’ll be the last time you have this type of quality and intimacy in your communications. Go ahead, I dare you to implement this simple suggestion, and then email your response or reactions to info@breedingtrust.com for a forthcoming study and book on the topic.

Author's Bio: 

Charlie Breeding is President of Performance Improvement Institute, an Internet Information provider, publisher and professional speaking, coaching, consulting and training firm. Mr. Breeding is a graduate of the US Military Academy, West Point and has worked in the Performance Improvement area for over 23 years – fifteen years with Dale Carnegie Training, and two years with FranklinCovey. His clients include colleges/ universities, non-for-profits, small, medium-sized and large organizations such as AT&T, Chrysler, and Lucent Technologies. For organizations, more information can be obtained at www.thePEPcoach.com and for individuals, go to www.breedingtrust.com. PEP = Productivity, Execution & Performance. His second book, Breeding Trust will be published in 2008.