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Are you still a terrible listener?

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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:

Thinking about something else. In an attempt to be productive, many of today’s professionals engage in multitasking. At the same time, studies show that multitasking can actually backfire and make us less productive. Thinking about another issue while someone else is talking means you may miss what is being said. Hess advises us to “intentionally think about what the other person is saying. Do you really understand? What did he or she really mean? Ask her if what you believe you heard is what she meant.”

Skewing another’s words. Here again, the three Ds (deny, defend and deflect) come into play. Good listening is not about twisting another’s words but striving to understand him. “Listening is not about YOU! It is not a competition. It is not about you showing how smart you are. It is not about you winning. Listening is about you showing you care enough about the speaker to focus on trying to understand his or her view or situation,” says Hess.

Offering unsolicited advice. Giving other people advice is not necessarily a good way to demonstrate that you’ve heard them and want to help. Depending on the circumstances, giving advice can be just another attempt to self-validate and show how smart you are. “Maybe you think that a colleague or friend is sharing a story with you precisely because they want your advice,” says Hess. “Well, that might be the case, but chances are what they need more is for someone to hear them out, to truly listen to what they have to say. Never, ever offer advice before being asked.”

“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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