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Build up your face-to-face communication skills

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Are you a listening loser?

At one time, watching people strolling down a sidewalk involved counting the number of smokers. Then, as society made smoking a social no-no, we started to see more people strolling along with a coffee cup in hand. Paper cups, sippy cups or insulated mugs, it didn't matter; their hands were full.

Today, many people are madly staring at their hand-held devices or talking on their cellphone.

Technology and social media have taken over our lives. Everyone, including grandparents and young people alike, is communicating with friends and family on a Facebook page, and/or sending a 140-character message on Twitter. We are constantly checking our email and networking pages just to see what the chatter is all about. Many employees have become addicted to their connection and resist turning their devices off while at work. Some people refuse to shut them off during important training sessions.

Employers aren't happy to see work time wasted so there's been a scramble to create workplace policies regarding multimedia tools. Some companies in the manufacturing field in particular, require employees to leave personal devices in their lockers.

At the same time, much of our communication is being translated into abbreviations. Think WTF or LOL.

Another factor is the deterioration of handwritten communication. While I once took pride in my penmanship, today I hardly recognize my own script. I might start writing something on a pad of paper only to get frustrated because, let's face it, handwriting is too slow. So, out comes the laptop and off I go, typing away like mad.

Giving up handwriting for keyboarding is one thing, but giving up face-to-face communication and listening is another thing. And bolding your email script, highlighting in red, or typing some words in capital letters just won't do it. Without the benefit of face-to-face communication, many of your messages will be misunderstood. It may also offend the reader.

People are also losing their listening skills. It may already have become a forgotten skill. However, we need good listening skills because they allow us to tap into the speaker's mind, to understand what's being said and to appreciate the emotions behind the communication. Listening allows you to be open to new ideas, to provide better customer service and to demonstrate you care about your employees and/or your colleagues. It allows employees to build trust and foster teamwork. Good listening skills can help you avoid conflict and resolve misunderstandings.

It might shock you to know that in spite of social media, we are still spending a large amount of our time listening to others. Therefore, I believe it's important we continue to pay attention to developing listening skills. Think of listening as a power tool we can use in the workplace to influence situations, reduce our stress and improve co-operation.

Part of the listening challenge is that many individuals hear the words being said but don't understand them. Others tune in and out of a conversation and only pay half attention to the conversation. Some individuals fake attention while others continually interrupt the speaker. And I am sure you've met some listeners who focus only on the facts and discard any notice of the emotion attached to the message.

What we need to do is develop our listening skills to a level that demonstrates an emotional involvement in the conversation. This requires us to avoid prejudging a speaker and making a concerted effort to understand their point of view. It requires us to understand ourselves, our listening abilities and barriers that prevent us from good listening. And, of course, it requires that we make every effort to improve our listening skills.

The following tactics will help you become a better listener.

Self-assessment - Ask yourself what barriers exist between you and a listener? Are there myths or biases that upset you and prevent you from listening effectively? Is your listening ability reduced when you are tired or frustrated? Do you recognize when you've become distracted by fidgeting, or doodling or gazing at your phone? Make a list of your bad habits and then work on them one at a time.

Watch for body language - Did you know 55 per cent of our communication is made up of facial expression, eye contact, hand gestures and personal posture? If you fail to pay attention to these, you are missing the emotional content and a good deal of the message. Focus your attention on these elements, as well as voice tone, to help you interpret attitude and give you direction as to how to respond.

Search for commonality - Listen for something of value to you and search for common ideas. This creates a link between you and the speaker. Concentrate on the words and what is being said. Show interest, ask good questions and demonstrate you are paying attention by using your own body language.

Plan your communication - Think before you talk. Good communication requires spontaneous analysis, thinking, planning and choosing your words carefully.

Work hard at listening - You aren't going to get perfect overnight, but if you are self-aware, practise listening skills, focus attention on the speaker and resist distractions, you will continue to become a better listener. Be determined to build better listening habits.

Technology is creating instant communication. I continue to believe strong listening skills need to remain an important part of our skills repertoire. As much as you love your portable device, it is an inanimate object that doesn't know how to love back or create a real personal relationship.

 

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group and president of Career Partners International, Manitoba. She can be contacted at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 H1

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