Thomas Edward Belo, my late paternal grandfather, was a man of very few words but was full of wisdom. For me, he is the best example of how to truly listen to people. (Although he passed away more than 20 years ago, I still refer to the example he represents for me in many areas of my life in the present tense because I have yet to identify anyone since him who exceeded the bar he set.) I can remember, as if it were just yesterday, the times we'd sit together on the front porch of his house in rural North Carolina, eating peanuts, waving at people as they drove by--whether we knew them or not, and they'd wave back. There might have been several of us sitting on the porch with him, or only a few; but, the scenario was always the same. It didn't matter who might be sharing their problem or issue or just merely openly recounting the events of the day; "G'anddaddy" (as i affectionately called him) did the least amount of talking. Oh, he might ask an occasional question here or there, but mostly, he'd just grunt or rub his chin or simply utter an "Um hum. And then, once whomever was talking had finished their tale or open-ended request for guidance, only then would Ed Belo speak.
One day I conjured the nerve to ask him why he would let the other person do more of the talking, even if he already thought he might have the answer for them. "Buddy, God give us all 2 years and one mou' fuh a reason. I s'pose it's on-a counta He want us ta listen ta what they's saying twice as much as He want us ta say sumpin' back ta 'em." [To be clear, those were not typos in my attempt to quote him phonetically. You see, he spoke in a distinct soft-spoken Carolina drawl that was peppered with mispronunciations and broken English grammar, indicative of limited formal education, such that "2 years" equated to 2 ears, "s'pose" equated to suppose, and so on.]
This post offers my reflection on some of my granddaddy's wisdom--particularly on the example he taught me about listening to others. And as I reflected on it, I came to realize that his was an example in helping to foster an inclusive environment. One thing I have noticed, and have come to understand as I've gotten older, is that the way we listen to others can have a profound impact on the relationships we have, both at work as well as outside of work. Active listening allows and can encourage people to recognize you as someone who not only can be trusted but someone in whom they would be willing to listen. (Such was the case with my grandfather. Not only did family members love, honor and respect him, but so did other Blacks AND Whites throughout all of the rural areas of Archdale, Trinity and Glenola, North Carolina--something not very common during the Jim Crow days, '70s and '80s in the Southern United States.) Active listening requires that one fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said.
So, here's what I've learned from good ol' Ed Belo about why developing strong listening skills is important. Obviously, listening allows you to obtain facts necessary to make decisions. But since we're talking about listening in the context of developing or maintaining an inclusive work environment, listening is essential to building trust. In order to develop trust, attention must be paid to each other in order to understand and appreciate one another's strengths and weaknesses.
Another reason why developing strong listening skills is important in the workplace is that, particularly for managers/supervisors, morale and productivity can be improved by listening for and trying to understand what motivates each employee. Listening to employees can allow for discovery of what aspects of the job s/he finds most rewarding and challenging. Be advised, though, a single conversation won't allow for this level of understanding. Additionally, listening can reduce the severity of conflicts. Conflicts in the office can arise when employees feel misunderstood, mistreated or even neglected.
To be an active listener, a lot of concentration and determination is necessary. Here are a few techniques I've come across that can help develop, or strengthen active listening skills:
To "attend" to another person means to be present, give attention to, and remain ready to serve. Mentally screen out distractions, such as background activity and noise, familiar faces passing by trying to get your attention, etc., as much as you possibly can. Try not to focus on the speaker's accent or speech mannerisms (if such exists and is different from your own). Lastly, don't be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings or biases.
Show That You Are Actually Listening
I can remember being taught, as a child, that it's rude to interrupt. I'm not sure whether that instruction is being taught as much anymore today. Clearly, the opposite is being modeled in many areas of our lives, where loud, aggressive, in-your-face conduct is condoned, if not encouraged. Interrupting can send many messages:
Show whether you understand where the speaker is coming from by reflecting their feelings. "I bet you were thrilled!" "Oh, that must have been terrible for you." "I can tell that was probably disheartening for you." Or some other indication that can be relayed genuinely to show that you understand how they may be feeling. Or, like Ed Belo, you can just nod or utter an occasional "Hmm" or "uh huh."
Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing things they tell you. If you're alarmed by what is said to you, go ahead and feel alarmed; however, don't cast judgment, particularly when someone is confiding in you. Doing so seriously risks compromising your effectiveness as a listener. Listen without jumping to conclusions. The speaker is using language and wording to best represent the thoughts and feelings inside their mind. Only by listening can you know and begin to understand what those thoughts and feelings are. Lastly, don't be a sentence-grabber--that is, interrupting and finishing their sentence. Allow them to finish their own sentence(s) because they are the ones experiencing the thoughts and feelings they're having.
Try to Feel What the Speaker is Feeling
Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. Try to put yourself in the other person's place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to them in that moment. This is not easy to do! It takes energy and concentration. But it is a generous and helpful thing to do, and it facilitates communication like nothing else.
Pay Attention to What ISN"T Said
The majority of what we say doesn't come out of our mouths. Excluding email, the majority of direct communication is non-verbal. Even over the telephone, almost as much can be learned about a person and what's being communicated from their tone, cadence of their voice and even their silence than from anything they might actually say. Face-to-face with a person, enthusiasm, boredom and even irritation can be easily and quickly detected in their expressions. When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message.
I now understand why my "G'anddaddy" used his ears more than his mouth. There's so much involved that one mouth should not be engaged when 2 ears are there to help do the work.
Building and maintaining and inclusive work place environment and relationships requires good listening skills. I would argue that active listening is the basic tenant to interpersonal skills, which provide the foundation to effective and inclusive work places environments.