On the many occasions I have run managing conflict training courses I have emphasized the importance of listening. This is for two reasons. First, listening is a very good way of defusing conflict. Paying attention to what somebody’s concerns are can help to calm a situation down and avoid any unpleasantness. Second, not being listened to is what will often lead people into conflict situations in the first place. Consider consumer complaints, for example. People will often pay for a product or service, then find they are not happy with it and want the matter sorted, but they do not feel the need to make a complaint. But, when their efforts to get their problem with the product or service rectified fall on deaf ears, that is when the chances of a formal complaint being made go through the roof. So, conflict, sometimes nasty conflict, is the price we can pay for not listening, whereas listening and paying attention can help avoid or settle conflicts.
But it isn’t just in relation to conflict situations that listening is an important matter. People tend to think of communication mainly as conveying information to one or more people, but that can mean that we forget that listening is also part of communication – if you are not listening, then communication is not being effective. In my Effective Communication book, I make the point that we cannot not communicate – that is, we are always giving off signals, whether we intend to or not. But, what we have to recognize is that listening (receiving information) also involves conveying information. For example, if it is clear that you are not listening, then you will be conveying to the person(s) concerned that you have no interest in what they have to say, that it is not important enough for you to pay attention. You may also be conveying disrespect or even contempt in doing so.
This is partly why active listening is so important. This involves not only listening, but actually showing you are listening – nodding, making eye contact and so on. For example, if you are actively listening, you are conveying interest, you are communicating that you want to hear what they have to say. So, in this case, you are expressing respect and are therefore more likely to receive a positive response from that person.
One problem when it comes to listening is that people will often listen to respond, rather than listen to understand – that is, while someone is speaking to them, they are concentrating on what they want to say next (their response), rather than trying to understand where the other person is coming from. This then leads to a very superficial form of listening that can cause a lot of ill feeling.
And the importance of ‘listening’ can also apply to electronic communication. Have you ever emailed somebody and asked them two questions, but their reply answers only first question and ignores the second? This is a very common occurrence and one that wastes a lot of time for both parties when you then have to follow up with a second email to get an answer to the second question.
Being a good listener can pay great dividends, making you much more likable and earning you respect, whereas not listening can create a lot of problems, alienate people, make you come across as unlikable and not worthy of respect. Listening is therefore a double whammy, in the sense that it brings a lot of positives, while its absence creates a lot of negatives.
Listening is not just an activity; it is an attitude of mind – it a way of approaching interactions with other people with respect, concern and interest.