Effective communication is a fundamental part of good decision-making and people-handling skills.

Studies have shown that managers spend up to 80 per cent of each workday communicating. Of this, about 60 per cent is spent listening.

Effective management is thus, to a large extent, effective listening.

However, the reality is that most people listen at a 50 per cent efficiency rate.

Although hearing is a natural process, listening is an acquired skill that requires much effort, attention, practice and reflection.

While most managers agree that listening effectively is a very important skill, few actually feel a strong need to improve their own skill level.

The lack of a firm grasp of the process and its benefits is generally the reasons why managers neglect developing effective listening skills.

Benefits

Managerial commitment to effective listening actually brings these significant benefits to the workplace:

* Creating a trusting environment: Effective listening creates trust in the workplace.

Managers who listen effectively make people feel valued and encourage the sharing of ideas and thoughts. A trusting environment actually incentivises people to make valuable contributions in the workplace.

* Objective decision-making: Through effective listening, managers get more information and feedback from their staff. This allows issues to be understood and examined with greater depth and basically supports the making of careful, informed decisions.

The lack of listening is often a major underlying factor for costly mistakes and workplace accidents.

* Resolving workplace conflicts: Volatile emotions can be diffused when people feel they are being listened to. The feeling of not being heard is a major reason for workplace aggression and rudeness.

Managers who practise effective listening are better able to anticipate and reduce inter-personal conflicts and seek resolution through win-win solutions.

* Playing multiple roles: Effective listening also helps managers play other important roles in the organisation as mentors, coaches and counsellors.

An active process

Listening is an active process that acquires meaning from both the verbal and non-verbal messages of the speaker.

Emotional, physical and cultural factors can form barriers to this process.

A high level of self-awareness and understanding is thus necessary to acquire good listening skills.

There are several key elements to the effective listening process:

* Objective: From the start, the objective must be to truly listen to what the speaker is saying and to fully understand the meaning, ideas and concepts being presented.

This involves a deliberate effort to concentrate entirely on the conversation.

* Focus: This involves focusing entirely on the speaker, maintaining appropriate eye contact and paying careful attention to the spoken words and the speaker’s body language.

The listener must concurrently avoid emotional, physical and cultural distractions like wandering thoughts, background noise, the speaker’s way of dressing, his accent or choice of vocabulary.

* Emotional detachment: The listener must remain attentive to the content and context of the conversation by detaching himself from personal prejudices and unproductive emotional triggers such as anger, fear and shame.

This helps to keep situations from spiralling out of control and is especially important when cultural assumptions and biases can become serious barriers to the listening process.

* Encouragement: Give encouragement to the speaker without interrupting by deferring judgment and counter arguments. Also, show the speaker that you are listening through appropriate body language, facial expressions and gestures.

* Evaluation: Come to a clearer understanding of the speaker’s message without jumping to conclusions based on emotional filters and incomplete information.

* Acknowledgment: Respond appropriately and respectfully by summarising what the speaker has said, to make sure that the message has been understood.

Ask questions, make comments and assert your opinions with sensitivity. This helps to convey to the speaker that you have been listening but are not necessarily agreeing with everything that has been said.

There is no denying that much effort and practice are needed to hone good listening skills.

Nevertheless, effective listening cannot be neglected, as it is an integral part of managerial effectiveness, employee satisfaction and workplace productivity.