Written by John B. Newman, Executive Director of APCO International
We do it thousands of times daily. It is automatic, but, today more than ever, it needs to be a fine-tuned skill and ability.
It is too easy to not pay attention when someone is speaking to us or to catch a few key words and respond without getting the whole story. Or, even worse, to hear something we don't agree with and respond immediately without much thought or in anger.
We are all guilty of the more common practice of "framing." Framing occurs when you hear part of a discussion and begin to plan your response without listening to the complete statement, thus missing key facts at the end of that statement. You can see how this critical mistake could be detrimental to anyone earning his or her livelihood as a calltaker.
Whether a comm center supervisor or manager or a line operator wearing a headset, the principals of listening are the same. When spoken to, we must do the following:
- Clarify. It is important to ask questions to be sure we understand clearly what the speaker said. Never assume anything.
- Acknowlege. By responding, you show the other party you are paying attention and listening.
- Probe. Emphasize open questions, choosing your words so that you do not appear to be interrogating the speaker.
- Summarize. Paraphrase what the speaker has said, using summary statements. This way both parties will know that the information has been communicated correctly.
Listening is not effective until you have heard totally what the other person has said, you completely understand the situation from the other person's perspective and you respond and communicate that you have listened and understand.
Putting yourself in a situation with a subordinate or trying to take information from a frantic and distraught caller can be extremely taxing. Here are a few well-tested tips that may make your job easier and improve your effectiveness:
- Encourage discussion. Don't create barriers. Be open and honest and empathetic to the person's plight while you try to extract the core meaning of his or her message.
- Investigate and inquire. Ask direct, open-ended questions to elicit quality information. Find out just what the other person wants or needs and make sure you have heard all the points he or she has made.
- Be informative. Give facts as you take facts. Explain reasons and actions as much as you can.
- Keep everyone involved in solving the issue. Buy-in is invaluable. Work together to create solutions.
- Initiate real solutions. Provide a bona fide action plan so the other party realizes something will be done and also that you "get" what he or she has told you.
One of the most significant difficulties in the art of listening is dealing with and managing the speaker's emotions.
Like anything else, we have choices about how to react to them. We can ignore emotional outbursts, such as when we sense the speaker is not telling us the truth or is manipulating the facts. A lack of response on the listener's part can help the speaker cut through the emotions to the facts.
Another reaction is to try to attack or suppress the speaker's emotions, to "fight fire with fire." This approach nearly always leads to the whole house burning down, metaphorically speaking. Why? First, it prevents the release of emotions that may be interfering with communication. In fact, once the speaker has vented his or her negative emotions, he or she may be able to communicate calmly and clearly with you. Second, the caller may develop additional negative emotions, this time directed at you, as his or her discomfort and frustration build.
A third and preferred reaction is to control and manage emotional outbursts constructively. By acknowledging the speaker's emotional state, you can defuse it, as he or she realizes that you "get it." You don't have to agree with the emotions, just recognize and acknowledge them, then channel them into productive actions.
Emotions Are Everywhere
Let's not be naive. Emotions are integral to our lives, both at work and at home. By putting ourselves in a vacuum and denying these emotions or ignoring them without reaction, we become far less effective.
Experience tells us we must understand two consistent emotional elements. First, they always point to hidden needs and agendas or fears. Second, they foster poor thought processes, when we think in absolute terms of "all or none" and find the negative thoughts to justify the emotions. These two elements mean we must manage our emotions or they will manage us.
Using rational thinking, analyze your next conversation--no matter with whom--for non-rational statements. Look for powerful, emotionally charged words or phrases that can cause sudden provocation. Look for reactions that indicate subconscious biases or prejudices.
These reactions escalate conflict. How many times have you heard or said the following?
- Who do you think you are?
- How many times do I have to tell you...?
- We don't have a problem. You have a problem.
- What's wrong with you?
None of these types of questions invite conversation or contribute to a positive comfort level. Instead, they provoke in-kind responses or cause the other party to tune out permanently. Avoid using such conversation stoppers at all costs. Instead, ask questions and listen with the same level of respect you want to receive.
Communication is our business, our calling and our gift. If we do it wrong, we lose contact with others and never truly understand them or their problem. If we do it right, we are problem-solvers. Doing it right takes both thought and effort, but the positive results are well worth it.