The ability to listen is one of the most important talents you can bring to business conversations. Psychologists describe the three essential pieces of what they call active (as opposed to passive) listening. These apply to telephone conversations as well as face-to-face meetings.
The Good Listener
In the corporate world, it’s not only discourteous but also unprofessional to be an indifferent listener. Supervisors claim they can easily tell whether a subordinate has been listening by the quality of the questions asked at the end of a discussion, along with the accuracy of his or her summation.
When a session where valuable information will be exchanged is scheduled, attend it; even if it’s at an inconvenient time, don’t enlist a surrogate. You don’t want to count on someone else to tell you about what was discussed. And when you do show up, be mentally and emotionally present as well; if your attention wanders, you’re not really there.
Listen not just to the words, but also to the tone. Take notes if the situation permits it. If you’re not sure about the propriety of notes (at a lunch, for instance), the simplest thing to do is ask: “Mind if I jot down a couple of your points?”
Pay close attention to what the other person is saying, no matter how tempted you are to let your mind wander. Also try your best to be patient with someone who’s speaking too slowly or faltering in getting their message across.
Now apply an elevated form of hearing that goes beyond the physical words to their meaning—mulling over and absorbing what the speaker is saying, why he is saying it, and what it means for your future association. With this step you become an active participant in an exchange of information, even though you may not yet have uttered a word.
To show you understand, occasionally paraphrase what the speaker is saying. Once you’ve picked up the rhythm of the other person’s speech, you should be able to do this without seeming to interrupt.
In conversation, patience is a virtue and interrupting is a sin. Remember that there’s a fine line between the occasional interruption made to confirm or question a particular point and one that’s made because the speaker is bursting to throw in his two cents’ worth.
If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation or ask for the information to be rephrased.
Use positive body language to show you’re paying attention. Lean slightly toward the speaker, and react to what he says with the occasional nod, smile, or lifted eyebrow.
If you’re at your desk, don’t shuffle papers or make a halfhearted effort to continue whatever you’re working on. When standing or seated in an audience, refrain from any distracting gestures, such as rattling the change in your pocket.