It is not easy to listen. The International Listening Association says that 75% of the time people speak to us, we are preoccupied, distracted or forgetful, while other studies have shown that soon after a conversation, we can only remember half of what we heard.
As finance professionals, we know that listening is a valuable skill that allows us to gain insights, challenge assumptions, suggest intelligent options and present alternatives to maximise shareholders' wealth or fulfil our clients' strategic objectives. Gathering the vital information we need in order to contribute our insights and expertise requires us to listen to and understand a range of perspectives from across our organisations, or those of our clients.
Effective listening deepens understanding and fosters the natural display of human creativity and brainpower
Intentional and purposeful
For listening to be effective, it must be an active, intentional, purposeful activity. Mark Nepo, The New York Times bestselling writer and poet, defines the concept of listening in his book, The Exquisite Risk: ‘To listen is to give up all expectations continually and to give attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not knowing what we will hear or what that will mean.’ He adds that ‘to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear’.
Effective listening deepens understanding and fosters the natural display of human creativity and brainpower. It helps us display kindness and compassion towards our colleagues, bosses, cross-functional allies and other stakeholders at work. Practising effective listening enables us to extract accurate, timely, unbiased and valuable information to reflect on past performance, present reality and future projections.
There are a number of barriers to effective listening. Distractions – due to stress, an unsatisfactory work environment or having done inadequate preparation, for example – are one reason we may lose focus. Other things that may get in the way of listening include having a preconceived agenda for the conversation, offering a response before a speaker has been able to make their point, interrupting or offering expertise when it is not required.
When someone proposes a meeting, create an unencumbered mental and environmental space for that conversation
Finally, low self-esteem and misinterpretation on the part of the listener can also play a part. Imagined hurt or disrespect, a perceived lack of recognition, an inferiority or superiority complex, or a negative disposition towards the speaker can all impede effective listening and distract from the substance of conversations.
Improve your skills
Here are some ways you can sharpen your listening ability.
Intend to listen. Listening requires mindfulness – being present in the moment – and active consciousness. Whenever someone seeks your attention or proposes a meeting, purposefully create an unencumbered mental and environmental space for that conversation. Practise daily intentional listening by quietening your inner distractions and maintaining focus. Make being an attentive listener one of your personal goals. A listening mindset will help you avoid arguments and obtain valuable information without burning out.
Clarify ambiguity. Asking questions and keeping an open mind while obtaining feedback will help us gain clarity and absorb more of the message. Consider, too, what the speaker is communicating non-verbally. Are they annoyed, afraid or threatened? Look at their behaviour and mannerisms, and explore the underlying meanings behind different positions as this will aid understanding.
Pause or defer. Where tensions make it difficult to concentrate or to progress a discussion, try to pause the conversation. Say: ‘Shall we sleep on it and close out tomorrow?’ Use this small window to gather more facts; this will help you hear what's being said in follow-up conversations and enable you to make better decisions.
By learning to listen, not only will you improve your relationships both in and outside work: you will bring value to your organisation by enabling better decision-making.