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power points

You spend at least half your time at work listening.

What have you done to improve that skill? Have you ever taken a course, or read a book, or asked others for their techniques? Have you consciously practised?

That statistic about listening comes from the International Listening Association and if you study yourself over a few days, it will likely have the ring of truth.

But perhaps you feel you don’t need to improve because you are quite adept already at listening. Here are two other sobering statistics reported by consultant Oscar Trimboli in his book How to Listen: Discover the Hidden Key to Better Communication. Surveys found about 75 per cent of respondents felt they were either above or well above average on the skill of listening, but they only rated 12 per cent of other people as being similarly skilled. That suggests many people overrate themselves.

Communication involves both speaking and listening. We assume we will get ahead by the strength of our arguments and speech. But we also get ahead by listening. Indeed, Mr. Trimboli warns the more senior you are in an organization, the more your listening matters.

“Listening is a skill, a strategy and a practice – a way to balance how you communicate,” he writes. “Listening is practical, pragmatic and actionable. All you have to do is focus on being better than you were in your last conversation.”

Prepare by “tuning.” Just as an orchestra readies for a performance by tuning their instruments – even when they have played the piece a thousand times – you need to consciously gear up to listen before a discussion. Mr. Trimboli says one of the most effective techniques, according to research, is to turn off your phone and the distractions it might offer.

He also recommends taking three minutes in silence to listen to yourself and notice the distractions and concerns that are nagging at you and might get in the way. Those meditative moments allow the subconscious time to process what is going on beneath the surface. It will make your listening less draining – lighter and liberating.

With this might come some deep breathing, which assists deep listening. It calms you down. Neuroscientist Romie Mushtaq recommends three minutes of controlled breathing before a conversation or a group meeting. Both those suggestions – three minutes silence to tune and another session at deep breathing – seem impractical in our hectic lives. But Mr. Trimboli warns that an Energizer Bunny approach is not helpful for connection and listening.

Noticing and adjusting the position of your attention during a discussion is an important foundation for improved listening. He distinguishes between paying and giving attention. Paying attention is hard, a chore, as exemplified when you listen to the flight-safety announcements before takeoff. Giving attention is an act of curiosity, generosity and possibilities.

“It’s impossible to give your complete and undivided attention to 100 per cent of people and conversations, 100 per cent of the time. Continuously giving your attention has downsides. Giving attention for too long can be draining and overwhelming,” Mr. Trimboli advises. Notice what sort of attention you bring before, during and after the conversation. He also urges you to be strategic, choosing when paying attention is effective and ineffective, adjusting appropriately.

Many people like to take notes and in some cases those records are an important part of the profession, particularly if disputes arise. He warns, however, against trying to take down every word, which will hijack your listening because your attention is drawn to your scribe function. On the other hand, writing down a word or two every few minutes, he says, can force you to listen more intently.

And listening intently is what you need to do, given the huge amount of time we are supposed to be listening in our work lives.

Quick hits

  • Halifax-based executive recruiter Gerald Walsh suggests answering these seven questions to create a personal-development plan for 2023: A goal I have for the next year is; this goal is essential because; the action steps I will pursue and my expected dates for completion are; the obstacles I will encounter are; the resources and support I will need to complete these steps are; the structures I will use to motivate myself are; how will I measure my progress?
  • Writer Ann Patchett considers it “pathetic” that she has to block out time for thinking – but she does, sitting on her meditation cushion, lighting a candle, setting a timer and then devoting herself to thinking about her book.
  • Reviewing his career and life, executive coach Ed Batista noted he values the freedom to choose his path, but many of the most important choices were affected by factors beyond his control – notably the serendipity and happenstance of life, and what it offered him at the time.
  • Atomic Habits author James Clear says you don’t always get to choose the load but you can choose how to carry it.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-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.