A few years ago, some major media outlets reported that the average attention span had shrunk from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds today. While this BBC News story busted that myth, research has shown that people, especially Generation Z, are facing more distractions than ever before in light of increased usage of social media and smart devices. Add in emails, IM’s and workplace apps and it is increasingly difficult to stay focused, even though attentive listening is required to maximize your success at work. With that in mind, here are four ways to become a better listener:
1. Step outside of the “me” zone. It is human nature to filter information from the perspective of one’s self. When you hear about a business merger or leadership change, naturally people wonder how it will impact their job. But to really comprehend and connect with another person, take yourself out of the equation. Let’s say a co-worker is talking about a challenge with his or her boss. Rather than hijack the conversation with colorful stories about the three worst leaders you’ve encountered, focus solely on what that individual is trying to communicate. Ask clarifying questions. Hear their highest hopes, worst fears and let them know someone cares. Bottom-line, people often just want to be heard and acknowledged. Paying attention to their comments and offering the desired level of outrage/support/solutions being asked for forges stronger connections for both parties.
2. Tune out other distractions. In this Fast Company story, Scott Eblin, the author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative noted, “We are living in a time when it’s more challenging to be consistently aware and intentional because so many things are demanding our attention. Our brains haven’t caught up to the technology that’s feeding them. The impact of this leaves people in a chronic condition of fight or flight.” Here’s a revolutionary idea… close your laptop and leave the smartphone behind during meetings to give the person who is speaking your full attention. What was that, an outraged gasp at the notion of not checking for new texts every 17 seconds? As this NPR story posits, while technology is supposed to help people do more than one thing at a time, humans overall aren’t particularly good at multi-tasking. Turning away from your electronics to tune in to the conversation at hand is a smart idea. Giving someone your full attention increases engagement and connection with that individual, while increasing your retention of information.
3. Reinforce their key message points. Check in with the object of your conversation to ensure you fully understand what they are trying to express. While facilitating a recent strategic planning session, I reiterated the essence of each participant’s insights after they spoke, creating connections with other themes and discussion points being shared by the group. This practice allows people to confirm the intent of their messages and clarify points if needed – all while reinforcing how important their contribution is to the session.
4. Recognize what is unsaid. You don’t need psychic powers or a connection at WikiLeaks to understand what people aren’t saying but really mean. During my executive coaching certification program with the Coaches Training Institute, we learned there are three types of listening. Level 1 is all about you, focusing on what your inner voice is saying. In this place, thoughts like ‘I’m tired,” or “when will lunch arrive?” get in the way of fully absorbing the comments of the person before you. Level 2 is focusing intently on what the others are saying. Level 3, known as global listening, is about observing and understanding what remains unsaid. For example, an individual might say everything they are handling as part of the company’s massive ERP project is just dandy while their slumped shoulders, “deer-in headlights” expression and re-emergence of a stress-related facial tick argues otherwise. Listening on level three means you take in what the person is saying and also factor in their body language, interactions with others in the room and known “life variables,” (you know, stuff like a new baby, change in relationship status, health concerns) to understand the full picture.