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Subtract e-mail from your daily activities and what’s left for most of us is a lot of talking and listening. It’s on listening that we usually fall down.

“Most of us miss opportunities in interactions through the default ways we listen. Like other critical communication skills, listening well depends on awareness of the goals, our own habits and choosing how to respond. The good news is, with practice, we can all be more effective listeners,” Rebecca D. Minehart and Laura Rock, assistant professors at Harvard Medical School, and Benjamin B. Symon, a simulation consultant at Queensland Children’s Hospital, write in Harvard Business Review.

They suggest starting by establishing when you enter a conversation why you are listening. It might be efficiency, to avoid conflict, to gain attention, or to offer support. If you give too much attention to your prime goal, however, you might shortchange other goals. So consider carefully how you can most valuably listen in this conversation. And if you lack the bandwidth to fully listen at this point and are merely surface listening, share that with the other party.

Next, consider your general listening style:

  • Analytical listener: Aims to analyze a problem from a neutral starting point.
  • Relational listener: Aims to build connection and understand the emotions underlying a message.
  • Critical listener: Aims to judge both the content of the conversation and the reliability of the speaker themselves.
  • Task-focused listener: Shapes a conversation toward efficient transfer of important information.

That’s valuable to know generally, but also to determine that your style aligns with the situation. For example, they note that when expressions of emotion are met with task-oriented or critical listening styles, we may miss valuable opportunities to better understand underlying values and concerns.

Beyond listening styles, the way we insert ourselves into the speaker’s narrative shifts the focus of conversational attention and we need to be alert to whether that helps or hinders. “We often assume that interjecting with our own personal stories is an empathic and relationship-building move, but it precludes hearing the other’s whole message. While it can be fun to interject, and is sometimes helpful to promote connection, when done without awareness it runs the risk of steering the conversation away from the speaker without redirecting back,” they note.

Finally, they stress the importance of considering whether the conversation seems to be productive and what we may be missing. If the person who initiated the conversation didn’t know what they wanted to get from it, for example, things can go off the rails.

Persuasion coach Brian Ahearn breaks listening down into five elements that you can remember though the acronym STARS:

  • Stop: The first thing you must do is give the other person your full attention. “People who think they can multi-task are fooling themselves,” he writes on the ThoughtLEADERS blog.
  • Tone: This indicates mood and gives more meaning to the conversations. Pay attention to your mood and that of the other person.
  • Ask: Make sure you ask good questions. “This is important because it helps clarify the message the other person is trying to deliver. It’s also a great way for you to find out things you think are relevant to the discussion, even if the other person doesn’t think they’re important,” he says.
  • Restate: It’s not enough to think you understand what the other person is trying to convey. Restate what you think you heard, putting it in your own words.
  • Scribble: Take notes, capturing key points. But don’t get so obsessed with the note-taking, trying frantically to write everything down, that you miss a lot in the moment because you have effectively succumbed to multi-tasking.

He stresses that each of the five points are within your power to do. You just have to make the choice to apply them – and improve your listening.

Quick hits

  • PowerPoint’s secret weapon is the “B” button. Presentations coach Gary Genard points out that when you are in View mode and press that keypad button it turns every screen showing the slide black, bringing attention back to you.
  • When sales trainer Nick Miller meets potential clients, he will say, “Before we jump into our business discussion, I’m curious – I’d love to hear a bit about you, your path to this company and your position. How have things evolved?” It may lead to what for now will be tangential or background information, but he believes it sends a vital message: “I’m curious… and I’m interested.”
  • Consultant Bob Vanourek, who has been a CEO at five firms, discovered that when he publicly admitted a flaw he became more credible and more authentic. When he went further and said he was working on his weakness and would appreciate any help, he developed deeper connections with people.
  • There are some problems where a useful solution can be a win-win for everybody, but not that many such situations, observes entrepreneur Seth Godin. Leadership is not the act of making everyone happy. If you can’t find a win-win, it might be time to find a win-lose where the most people with something at stake end up benefitting.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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