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This article by Susan Young was prepared for the April 16, 2008 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved. For the complete calendar of business meetings and arts events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html

Interchange: The Power of Silent Listening

Communication is the single most important skill that can directly affect your success. The common trait that all outstanding leaders share is that they are excellent communicators.

One of the major, daily challenges we face is that we are constantly being bombarded with information, messages, pictures, and images. Computers, televisions, PDAs, instant messaging, and other high-tech and low-tech gadgets are running us in circles with literally thousands of messages and images a day. It can be difficult to pay attention and focus on one undertaking at a time. You might find that multi-tasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. There’s simply too much stuff.

While these communications tools are quite useful in today’s competitive world, it’s ironic that our human and interpersonal communication often requires our utmost and undivided attention. In order to have the effective and powerful communication skills needed in the workplace, you must learn to speak and listen to other people without the outside distractions and conflicting messages vying for your attention.

The most important ways to communicate, build rapport with colleagues, clients and prospects, gather information, and conduct business lies in your capacity to ask quality questions. This requires your laser-like focus and attention. You may be able to ask a question while sending a text message but the quality of it will probably be poor. That’s because your mind is not fully on the conversation. The result is a disconnect between listening to the response and your ability to drive the conversation forward with effective follow-up questions and dialogue. Your failure to ask powerful questions, along with poor listening skills, often means that you may walk out of meetings frustrated because there are communication barriers that could have been avoided. Often times, the person who is looking for information has failed to ask the right questions and leaves the meeting without the sale, the new job, or the settled disagreement.

People who ask quality questions are empowered. People who ask questions are psychologically in control of the conversation. Most high achieving sales professionals, lawyers, psychologists, teachers, and news reporters can directly attribute their success to their knack of asking quality questions.

Here are four tips to asking good questions:

Ask open-ended questions. These start with words such as who, what, where, when, why, and how. They require the person responding to open up and share information and details. If you ask close-ended questions that simply require a yes or no response, the conversation will likely come to a close or dead-end.

Ask for specifics. By being inquisitive and requesting clarification in conversations, you will develop a more thorough understanding of the issue at hand. In addition, you will also be showing the person you are speaking with that you are truly paying attention and are interested. Some examples include "What exactly do you mean?" and "Can you give me three goals that you would like us to achieve by the end of the contract?"

Gather factual and emotional information. Factual information is important but emotions in communication shouldn’t be ignored. Questions like "What are your priorities?" and "What’s most important to you?" are good ways of probing.

Go deep. Questions provide us with valuable information. If your boss is critical of how you handled a project, avoid asking yourself that dreaded and pitiful "why me?" question. Instead, pose the following questions to your boss: "What specifically would you recommend that I do differently in the future?" "What three specific areas were up to your satisfaction and where could I have made improvements?" Put a positive and specific spin on your questions and you’ll quickly get to the core of the situation.

Once you have asked your quality questions, the key is to completely pay attention to the responses. Many business professionals are familiar with active listening skills, such as don’t interrupt people, repeat key details to show you’ve been listening and understand, maintain eye contact, and smile.

In this busy and competitive world, it’s time to take our listening skills one step further. Enter the realm of "silent listening."

Silent listening requires us to slow down and virtually stop that noisy soundtrack that plays in our heads 24/7. Silent listening requires our absolute undivided attention, free of distractions, free of judgments, free of planning our next response. It requires us to be in the moment.

Consider this: How many times have you asked someone a question that you were genuinely interested in and curious about and as soon as they began to respond, your mind was jumping around aimlessly with random thoughts. "I forgot to send that E-mail to Joe," "I have to pick up the dry cleaning," "I wonder if that fax came in?" These mental interruptions often happen in less than 2.9 seconds. They pull you away from conversations that can result in missing important details. These arbitrary thoughts can negatively affect relationships as well. Many people can quickly sense when they are in a conversation alone.

In 2007 I decided not to make a New Year’s resolution. Instead, I made a promise and vow to myself that I have kept to this day. It is to be in the moment. That means that wherever my feet are, my head is. In other words, silent listening. Over these 16 months since I made this promise to myself, I have often had to literally pull myself back into the moment when those random thoughts starting bouncing around my brain. When I am in a conversation with someone, I have to be completely engaged and attentive to what they are saying and how they are moving and behaving. There are no distractions, there is no pull. Where my feet are, my head is.

Here are four tips to silent listening:

Resist the temptation to interject comments or ask more questions. Let the person who is speaking completely finish their thought. We’re adults. There should only be one voice at a time.

Count to five slowly before you respond. People tend to be uncomfortable with silence but this practice will help to slow you down and will ensure that the speaker is finished.

Catch yourself if you begin to drift. When you become aware of your mind darting around or are planning your next response while someone else is still speaking, pull yourself back mentally and reconnect with the conversation.

Understand the difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is something that takes place in a split second. A response means you have given some thought before answering. For example, if a waitress in the diner offers you a hamburger or salad for lunch, a reaction would be if you immediately said you would like a hamburger. A response would be a follow-up, such as "Does that come with French fries?" or "Can you please put cheese on that?" Knee-jerk reactions should be avoided, whether you’re ordering lunch or reviewing a budget.

Silent listening is an essential business skill. It shows people that you are fully engaged and care about what is being said and who is delivering the message. You’ll find that you remember people’s names, details of what they are talking about and that you show compassion and congeniality. It helps to build strong relationships.

Susan Young, an author, speaker, and award-winning entrepreneur, is president of the East Brunswick-based Get In Front Communications and Susan Young Media Relations Inc. Printeed above is an excerpt from her new book, "Communicating with Confidence: Tips & Techniques for Powerful Business Communication," which is available in hard copy for "$11.95 or as an E-book for $8.95 at www.getinfrontcommunications.com.

A 25-year veteran of the communications and news industry, Young is an award-winning radio news broadcaster and a member of the National Speakers Association

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