Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Article: The greater part of communication - listening

With both Irish and Yorkshire ancestry I could win an Olympic Gold for talking for England - bluntly. Sensitively blunt is how I often describe myself. In the business world we need both skills to be able to work effectively. However, I was born and have lived for most of my life in the south of England where curious communication habits have developed.

I am not a fan of jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, marketing spin or irrelevant waffle as a general rule. A spade is a spade not a manual earth transference device or METD for short! People who delight in looking down their noses at those who do not know the jargon or acronyms I find irritating as they either way they are on some private ego boosting trip of their own or into power mongering in my humble opinion (IHMO). My tendency is to invent a few terms of my own to remind them that they do not know everything and that they too are learners. I guess that's my mischievous Irish side.

That said industries develop a short-hand to help increase the speed by which information can be relayed and certain types of media such as Twitter and texting sometimes merit that short-hand. Then there are affectionate pet names for things which get to be common parlance such as grellies instead of grelcos or hoovers instead of vacuum cleaners. I happen to know that some parts of the IT industry in particular loves inventing quite rude acronyms to keep 'those in the know' happily amused and focussed on their work - fear not they are safely tucked away from the gaze of the public. As we acquire knowledge so the terms we use with our colleagues adapts.

We are also human so general chit-chat is I feel, an important and necessary element to include in a healthy working environment. We cannot gauge when is the right time to approach our superiors or when to inform a member of staff about anything without taking into account how busy they are or what mood they are in. If we want to work in a happy and more productive environment it makes sense to take an interest in everyone we work with anyway.

So, while I am a staunch advocate in working purely with facts, I also advocate ensuring those facts are placed in context as it helps inform decisions on not only what is the most appropriate route forward but also how a task should be actioned. Wording is crucial to effective communication... rumour has it that's why people get trained in the art of marketing as they should be the best at it at all times. However, no one is perfect 24 hours a day, every day (24/7).

A pause of my Irish prattling... time to illustrate a different communication style - that Yorkshire bluntness.

How to listen effectively
Fact: learnt in studies on counselling.
  1. Applicable to all verbal communication but also some written forms.
  2. The acid test on whether or not you have listened is to list all the adjectives (describing words such as productive, proactive lovely and successful) used by the person you were supposedly listening to. Oh, you think 'successful' is a factual statement do you? It is always a subjective (personal) perspective.
  3. Adjectives provide clues to where that person is coming from, what they know and what their preferred style of communication is.
  4. To hone and develop those skills, go on an Introduction to Counselling course.
Please note: this does not in any way imply that you have understood a single word you have heard!

Body Language
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is but one form of learning how to read body language - there are plenty of others. Subconsciously we all pick up on body language, it's how we get our 'vibes' about others. We are often totally wrong in the detail because as humans we interpret our information according to what we have experienced ourselves and by what we choose to believe those experiences tell us about others.

Body language does at least give us a starting point - it's usually pretty obvious if someone is in pain, stressed, happy, excited, interested, unimpressed or bored from body language on its own. The 'why' behind those signals is where we err. To find out, try asking! In the working environment though it is not always either appropriate to ask or to tell people why they are interested or unimpressed. Different work situations require each person to behave differently in a set of generally understood (for the most part) but hardly ever voiced rules of conduct.

If a person is making a pitch for you to give them business their body language might say that they are unimpressed and bored with you. If so, you're not likely to stop and ask why!

Again to fully understand body language requires proper in depth training on a dedicated course.

The written word
Listening also applies to all forms of written communication. We can gain insights by noting the order in which information is conveyed, the vocabulary used, the structure (bullet pointed lists, paragraphed statements etc) and of course by what is missed out. Reading between the lines (i.e. interpreting what is put) again is at our own risk - we might be wrong. Omissions might be because of the writer being ill, distracted or phenomenally busy. Again and again I find I regularly have to remind people not to assume but to seek facts by asking for clarification.

I was tempted to now go on to how to put all this together by providing a myriad of examples listening skills and apply it to the above key areas of verbal, body language and written communication. However I feel it would be an insult to my reader's intelligence to do so and it is against my policy to spoon fed anyone anyway. Empowerment means providing the tools for people to do things for themselves.

A single example
I will leave you with one recent example though which covers all three. A volunteer offered their services to a charity. They were invited to an interview and the charity was delighted with them. On leaving the volunteer said that they were looking forward to helping in the ways discussed but beyond that they would want to be paid for their assistance. They later badly reinforced this with an email. The charity did not like this attitude even though many volunteer positions are the precursor to paid employment when positions become available. The result was the volunteer was rejected. Had the charity taken time to listen carefully or get clarification in writing from that email things might have turned out differently so that both parties would have profited from the arrangement.

The volunteer was so angry with the charity that I suggested they contact the head of it as I doubt they would be pleased. I also ensured that the volunteer understood that the person they were interviewed by was perhaps not the best person to represent the charity or its policies on volunteers. Fortunately the individual still believes in the charity but whether or not they have written to the head of it, I have no idea. I kind of hope so though as I loathe potential going to waste and it sounded like both parties had a lot to offer each other. Ah well... "Nowt as strange as folk" as my Yorkshire ancestors would say.

Even at its best language can only ever be an approximation of meaning, but by asking for clarification we greatly reduce misunderstandings and thereby costly errors in time, money, resources, stress levels and worthwhile relationships. Listening helps us all acquire more accurate and information to help shape our decisions. If avoidance of misunderstandings is ever a goal, investing time in letting others speak is an absolute must. That's how great things (miracles) can begin!

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