Have you mastered the art of listening?

ear, generic, Listening, Human Ear, Deaf, Human Hand, Men, Sensory Perception, Silence, People, Using Senses, Eavesdropping istockphoto.com

Many people in the business world take classes in the art of verbal communication: how to give a speech, make a presentation, chair a meeting. But the other half of the equation -- listening -- gets scant attention. At least until now. Sheryl Connelly, a futurist who works for Ford Motor Co., spends a lot of time talking and giving presentations. She's also a regular visitor to the TED conferences, where it is no surprise she likes to listen. And it was at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh this week where she talked about listening well.

1. Focus closely on the person speaking. Don't half-listen while you check your messages and schedule conferences. At any meeting -- a conference or a departmental review -- be there in full. Otherwise, you are likely to miss something.

2. Listen carefully for things you don't know. Our brains home in on what's familiar because it's easy and comfortable, and it reassures us of our intelligence. But that's no way to learn anything. Listen for new information, discontinuities, things you didn't know but could learn from. If there's nothing to be gained from this strategy, you may be in the wrong meeting.

3. Challenge yourself and what you hear. Don't just nod and accept it as a given. Ask yourself: What do I know that confirms this? What do I know that contradicts it? Let your head play an active role.

4. Be prepared to change your mind. Sherry Turkle used to think everything about computers was wonderful; now she isn't so sure. If we listen hard and ask ourselves good questions, we may travel to places we didn't expect.

5. If you find sitting still difficult, then either take notes or doodle or both. Connelly is a fantastic artist and illustrates her notes beautifully. She has volumes illustrating all her past TED attendances. Some of us aren't so gifted -- but we can doodle. All the evidence shows that both help you focus. And if you aren't focused -- why are you there?

The skills of listening, Connelly argues, are really life skills: treasuring the precious and always limited time that you have. Why waste it?

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

Comments