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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Sit. Stay. Listen.

Stay out of the doghouse. Learn to listen, and watch your career advance.

By  Julia Kramer

Convincing others of the power of great listening skills sometimes seems as futile as teaching a dead dog new tricks. Listening may top the list of must-have skills, but many people just don’t get it. Without effective listening skills, it is very difficult to function in an environment that relies on relationships and communication as a primary means of achieving goals. This is especially true if you’re a top dog.

A lack of mature interpersonal skills may be apparent one-on-one, but it’s really exaggerated in a group setting. Meetings bring out competitiveness in most of us, and our interpersonal acumen scale drops to zero. We want attention, we want to influence others, we want to get our fair share, and we want to make sure the group arrives at what we see as the best solution. Many of us forget, in our haste to be heard, to listen to others. We miss a critical part of the equation.

When we don’t listen, we operate at a handicap because we remain ignorant of available, and important, information. Many fake it. They nod rhythmically when someone else is speaking, take voluminous notes or toss out a one-word bone or two, such as “exactly!” to give the perception of actually listening.

To these tricksters, I say: Sit. Stay. Listen. Sit because quality listening takes focus, time and attention. Stay because you must quiet your mind and allow yourself to stay in the moment. And then listen! Really listen.

So what do I mean by “really listen”? First, know that it’s not a trick and it’s not easy to learn. Successful listening deeply taxes your abilities of concentration, self-containment, data synthesis, open-mindedness and consideration. The following tips, if practiced, should help you become a more effective listener.

Prepare yourself. Identify what arguments or positions are coming your way, rather than focusing on your stance and your rebuttal. Remind yourself to be open-minded, to hear everything being said, and to pull what is useful from other’s positions. Then try to dovetail it into something that you both can live with. Very important: leave personal and inappropriate agendas at the door.

Be present. Before the meeting, turn off your BlackBerry and cell phone and make sure your staff knows you should not be interrupted unless there is an emergency. During the meeting, focus on the discussion. Don’t allow your mind to wander. Synthesize the information that is being presented. Take pertinent notes but not to the exclusion of being present in the discussion. Be a good citizen and let the speaker know you are listening through eye contact and body language. If you find your mind wandering, tell yourself “stay” and re-engage.

Share the floor. That everyone participates and no one dominates should go without saying. If you are caught up in constant power-positioning, you can’t effectively listen, understand and process what others are saying. Ditto for talking over someone else who has the floor or “thinking over” someone else. Thinking over someone means, for example, planning your counterattack while you should be really listening to whoever is speaking. Not only do you appear distracted, you’ll weaken your position because you won’t have all the data available.

Silence does not mean you’re listening. When I’m speaking, I know that silence can mean you’re ignoring what I have to say and mentally making your grocery list, that you are hatching a devious plan to stab me in the back, or that you’re asleep with your eyes open. But, more realistically (I hope), I also know that silence could mean that you are listening and agreeing with me, actively processing the information that I’m delivering, developing new ideas based on the new information, or offering support by not interrupting me.

Speaking does not mean you’ve listened. For the most listening-challenged of us, the simple act of listening without speaking makes us feel like a balloon about to burst. Those who get over-stimulated by active listening tend to interrupt, create arguments to relieve the urgency to speak, interject inappropriately, have sidebar discussions, make jokes and/or create distractions. If you are a hyper listener, be introspective about your need to over-participate. Whether it’s impatience, fear that you won’t get a turn, or the need to think aloud, these qualities hinder your ability to be fully present in the discussion.

Listening is all bite and no bark, by virtue of the fact that it’s an internal exercise. Many discount it for that reason and prefer to develop the skills that are more overtly demonstrable. But don’t underestimate the power of listening. Skilled listeners frequently are the ones first asked to take the floor or to lead the pack. They have the ability to forge the strongest relationships and can build trust like nobody’s business. Don’t be a dead dog; learn new skills and reap the rewards for doing so. It’s not easy, but it’s pretty simple: Sit, stay and listen.

Kramer, is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President
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