These days, we wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor. We rush through emails, meetings and business lunches — and lose something valuable in the process: the ability to stop and listen. Ironically this ability is the one thing we need for success in the 21st century.

“It used to be that the smartest guy in the room was the one who was constantly talking,” says Professor Ed Hess, author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. “Not anymore. Now, the smartest guy or gal in the room is the one who asks the right questions and then truly listens to what others have to say.” 

According to Hess, listening is the most important skill for job success in today’s market. But in an attempt to keep up our frenetic pace, many of us have developed poor listening habits. Here are some of the worst and what you can do about them: 

Planning a response while others are still talking

Many of us focus on information that confirms what we already believe. In conversation, we may tend to engage in the three Ds (deny, defend, deflect) in order to protect our egos. We are so busy thinking about ourselves that we can’t really listen to others. “Good listeners are people who actively listen with the goal of truly trying to understand what the other person is saying. Only after understanding and reflecting does a good listener thoughtfully respond.” 

Completing other people’s sentences

This can occur out loud or in our heads. Because of the hectic pace of our lives, we rush to finish things as quickly as possible, including others’ thoughts. Recognize that when you do this, you have stopped listening. “We humans prefer to simply confirm what we already think and trying to complete someone’s sentences is one way of doing that. We start to think, “‘Well, I’ve heard this a thousand times before. I know what he’s going to say.’ And then we zone out,” says Hess.

Interrupting

When Hess was in school, he would wave his hand to be called on while the teacher was still talking. Interrupting his teachers in order to be the first to answer was Hess’s way of showing how smart he was. “Of course, we interrupt one another for a lot of reasons, but many of them can be boiled down to our need to show how smart we are. I learned that others would not think less of me if I listened, waited until they were through talking, and reflected on what they said before responding.”

“When you work hard to improve your listening skills, you’ll become a better collaborator — a necessary skill for critical and innovative thinking and being successful in the 21st century,” says Hess. Learning to listen well can give you an important edge over the competition.

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