Listening: The Forgotten Side of Communication Competency, Part II

This is the second post of a three-part series on listening. The first post reviewed the INCOSE Competency Framework’s definition of communication, and discussed basic elements of listening that can help one be more effective in one’s interactions. And in the third post, Scott looks at a further set of skills that will enhance and refine your communication competency as a systems engineer.

In our last installment, we talked about the importance to the systems engineer of communication and, in particular, listening. We visited some of the communication roles that systems engineers play in communication and highlighted the importance of listening in each of those roles. This week, we will turn our attention to some specific skills and techniques that we can use to become better listeners.

We begin with one of the most important and most difficult skills that we need in our communication toolbox.

Silence your inner dialogue
We all have a narrative stream that runs constantly in our heads. It can be distracting, but it can also be focused on the dialogue occurring in our environment. When we are lost while driving, our first instinct is to turn down the radio because we “can’t think.” In that case, the sounds from the radio are interfering with our thoughts about finding our way again. Our mind is focused on the external sound from the radio and we need to concentrate on our own thoughts about where we are going.

When we are listening to someone, the reverse is true. Our inner soundtrack—which is most often taken up by our thoughts around what we want to say next—can block out what our conversational partner is saying. The bottom line is that we can’t focus on both our own inner narrative and the speaker’s expressions. When we are listening, we need to turn our full attention to what is being said and resist the temptation to follow the trails of thought that our own minds suggest along the way.

Project the right message
The next category of skills has to do with being mindful of what you project as you listen. A major concern when listening is creating a safe and inviting space where others will want to be open and share with us. The gateway to such a space is created by our appearance in the conversation. We need to project a receptive and friendly environment where others can be comfortable sharing their thoughts, impressions and feelings.

There are several skills that contribute to this. Their common foundation is authenticity. It is a basic truth that what is inside of us will show to a greater or lesser degree in our outward appearance and demeanor. Most of us are not professional actors skilled in masking our inner thoughts and feelings. That means that we must first foster in ourselves a genuine desire to be open and welcoming. This will make our efforts to project these qualities authentic and credible. At the same time, there are specific skills that we can practice to help accurately portray our desire to share in the conversation.

Our demeanor—the way we stand and talk, our facial expressions—conveys a message for good or ill. Before we even begin to look for the sender’s nonverbals, we need to make sure that what we are saying with our nonverbal signals promotes the welcoming message that we want to send to our listeners. These suggestions are designed to help in that effort.

Make eye contact
Failing to make direct eye contact (in our American culture) says, at best, “I am not paying attention,” and, at worst, “I am being evasive.” Maintaining eye contact does not mean sustaining a penetrating stare. This can seem invasive and make the sender uncomfortable. But your gaze should be largely on the sender’s eyes and mouth. This is helpful in hearing what is said while still allowing you to see what is going on nonverbally in the form of posture, gestures and head-nods, etc. Looking your sender “in the face” both helps you collect information about the message being sent, and at the same time, sends a message of “I am listening and I am interested in what you have to say.”

Adopt a friendly/sympathetic expression
You are seeking to establish a “safe space” where the sender can feel comfortable and able to open up about their observations, conclusions, opinions, and feelings. That can’t be done if you are scowling or appearing uncomfortable yourself. You cannot let your expression betray your underlying approval or disapproval of what is being said. Your expression should convey your interest and openness to hearing what they have to say.

Signal that you are listening
One of your most helpful techniques here is asking questions that invite the sender to say more. While the main purpose of asking questions is to gather content, the fact that you are asking questions that are encouraging additional sharing sends a strong signal that you are listening and interested in what is being said. The same can be said for appropriately-placed responses like, “Interesting. Tell me more,” or other inviting phrases.

Assume a comfortable, inviting posture
Without becoming wound up in the details of interpreting nonverbal behaviors, a general rule is that open postures send a message of interest and connection. The same is true for postures that lean toward the sender. Leaning slightly forward with uncrossed arms and legs is preferable to leaning away with crossed arms and/or legs. But, a word of caution—don’t invade the sender’s personal space. The concept of personal space varies from culture to culture and even person to person within a given culture. But the best way to understand the concept in a particular situation is to be vigilant for signs of discomfort in the sender’s behavior. Backing or turning away or the crossing of arms can be signs of discomfort. So can certain facial expressions. If you are going to be communicating with persons outside your own culture, try to learn something of their conventions in advance. Some behaviors (e.g., showing others the bottoms of your feet, using your left hand at the table) can be offensive in some cultures. Avoid offensive nonverbal (or verbal) expressions that can destroy the conversational space you are working to create.

Use their name
It is a fundamental principle that everyone has a name and they like to hear it. (Okay, that should say “Use their name if and when it is appropriate.” On meeting the Queen, don’t attempt to make her comfortable by calling her “Liz.”) But, where it is appropriate with the rules of etiquette, using someone’s name is powerful. When I was first trained as a hostage/crisis negotiator, the instructor taught us that if we could get the person with whom we were negotiating to say our name, we were half-way home in the negotiation. That is because the use of someone’s given name implies a personal recognition of them as a human being with a connection to the speaker. Like other techniques, this can be situational and you should use your judgment. But, as a rule, using the sender’s name will help your cause.

The use of these techniques will help to create the safe space of open communication and facilitate the flow of information from the sender to the skillful listener. Remember, the key to using these techniques is being authentic in doing so and understanding the situation in which they are used. Genuine and tailored uses of these skills will advance the success of your communication experiences.

Next time: More skills for listening well and dealing with the challenges and pitfalls for listening, including those created by our new virtual environment.

For more on becoming a better systems engineer through communication, read Let GENESYS 2020 R2 Amplify Your Model Communication.

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