“But what about listening? Where does that fit in? And how important is listening?”

Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve heard these questions—once while giving a talk on communicating in a brain-friendly way at the Information Overload Research Group’s Overloaded 2012 un-conference and second while facilitating an SF IABC panel on being a strategic communication advisor.

To me, listening is like breathing. Listening attentively is one of my few unconscious competent skills. (It saved me during my recent terrifying experience with Improv, which redefined conscious incompetence.)

Good listeners hang on to others’ words without thinking about it. This attribute is especially valuable when you serve as a strategic advisor. In this role, leaders are looking to you to help them think through issues rather than tell them how to solve a problem.

And as one of the SF IABC panelists emphasized, leaders also appreciate you sharing with them what you’ve heard from key stakeholders in and out of the organization.

Being innately curious and having trained as a reporter, I much prefer listening to talking. So much so that I forget to call out listening as an aspect of communication in these two talks.

Listening, the receiving of messages, is tightly entwined with the sending of messages to form two-way communication. Effective communication is a conversation, back and forth sending and receiving.

Just as you can improve your oral and written communication, you can improve your listening.

Start by recognizing some of the more helpful types of listening—helpful for strategic communication advisors, that is. These include listening for:

  1. Understanding. What’s the content? Are they stating it boldly, tentatively or somewhere in between? Are they sharing all the details or holding things back?
  2. Language. What words and phrases are they consistently using to describe the information they’re sharing as well as to express their point of view?
  3. Connections. How are they making connections with you? How are you relating to them?
  4. Patterns. What themes are you noticing in their conversations, and how do these themes relate to what you’re hearing from others?
  5. Energy. How does their energy ebb and flow based on the topics they’re discussing? Based on the people around them? The time of day you’re talking? Other?
  6. Potential. How are they expressing their desires—what they believe is possible? What issues excite them?
  7. What’s not being said. What is absent from their speech? Are there unmentionables? Are they talking around issues?

When you listen in these different ways, you’re better able to acknowledge what you’ve heard—which people appreciate. Plus, you’re better positioned to ask good questions, which deepen the conversation.

Plus, the valuable content you gather helps you do a number of things. For example, you can synthesize vast amounts of data into a coherent story for others. You get insights of how to help frame and phrase concepts that will be more authentic and meaningful. You get clues that help you probe important issues that may be beneath the surface.

To do this well, you often need to allow time not only for the initial conversation, but also time afterward to reflect on what you heard and to review your notes. You then start getting a fuller picture of what you heard.

So why are our two ears weaker muscles than our one mouth?

When I do communication training with groups, I talk about how we often take shortcuts, we don’t bother overcoming barriers that often in our way or we don’t adjust our mindset. As a result, we don’t listen as well as we should.

For example, many of us multi-task, especially when we’re on the phone so we hurt our powers of concentration. We also may assume we know what people are going to tell us so we put words in their mouths and complete their sentences for them. Or, we don’t value that others can offer us useful insights and ideas when we take time to listen to them.

So slow down, take a deep breath and start to listen more fully. Pretty soon—maybe not as fast as corn grows—but still relatively quickly, you’ll retrain your ears and start to hear more richly.

What do you say?

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