Listen Up: How to Communicate Better

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”- Epictetus, Greek philosopher (AD 55 - 135)Here I thought all along that quote was from my mother, who reminded me of this fact more than once as I was growing up.Isn't it funny that when we think of great communicators, we often think of the most effective orators, past and present? lists their own top 10 through the ages - from Cicero and Pericles to Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Winston Churchill tops their ranking.But if we heed the wisdom of Epictetus (and my mother), we begin to uncover what has become a lost art in our smartphone-obsessed, information-overloaded society: the art of active listening.

Active listening is essential for any organization or leader to communicate better.

Without a deliberate and consistent mechanism for gaining insight, even the best of orators will miss addressing the most important concerns of the stakeholders they want to engage. This includes employees they want to motivate, decision makers they want to influence, and customers they want to keep for a lifetime. What is active listening? It's a communication technique that is used in counseling, training and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. Any ear can hear. But active listening involves the entire body, using a host of techniques that require practice, such as:

  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Nodding and smiling
  • Encouraging the speaker to continue by saying "yes" and "Mmm hmm."
  • Holding the right posture, such as leaning slightly forward or resting your head on one hand
  • Using facial expressions to signal empathy in emotional situations
  • Repeating and paraphrasing back to the speaker what you heard to ensure understanding
  • Relevant questioning for clarification of points that aren't clear the first time

Active listeners are communications caregivers. They apply these techniques sincerely to foster an atmosphere of trust, creating easier, open and honest communication.  Most important, as Steven Covey notes in his book, The Speed of Trust, leaders and organizations must listen first before trying to diagnose, influence or prescribe.As the ultimate trust-building technique, the principles of Covey's Listen First guidance include understanding, respect and mutual benefit. He goes on to cite Peter Drucker's article on management authority in the Harvard Business Review: "We just reviewed eight practices of effective executives. I'm going to throw in one final bonus practice. This one is so important that I will elevate it to a rule: Listen first, speak last."Active listeners benefit from gaining true insight, which enables better decision-making and an effective and strategic set of actions and communications to carry out those decisions.Epictetus had it right. We have two ears and one mouth for a very good reason. And 2,000 years later, that wisdom is more relevant than ever.