In several previous professional positions, especially those in call centers, there has been considerable time spent training people to actively listen. The problem; active listening can be faked, and fake active listening is as useful as a shower without soap or shampoo. You might get wet, but you do not feel clean.
Listening has four distinct levels, these are:
- Inactive listening – Hearing words, seeing written communication, zero impact mentally. Mostly because your internal voices drown out the possibility for communication.
- Selective listening – Hearing only that which confirms your own voices, opinions, and biases. While others are speaking, you are already forming your response.
- Active listening – Show the other person you are paying attention, engage with meaning in a reply. Focused upon removing barriers to get your point across.
- Reflective listening – Paying attention to intent and content, reducing emotion, two-direction as both parties are engaged in achieving mutual understanding.
Tools for listening effectively, which for all intents and purposes, means listening reflectively, requires several tools, along with considerable experience in using these tools. Customer service focus – not sales in disguise, not having a hidden agenda, and not covertly looking for opportunities to turn the conversation back to you. The attitude of service – is all about what your intention is after listening. Sales are all about attitude and winning over someone else; however, how many sales require first being able to reflectively listen; every single one. Desire – desire determines your choices, your choices form decisions, and decisions determine destiny!
Consider the press conferences at the White House. A room is full of people who would claim they are professional listeners, who then report what is being said. Yet, how many times do you see questions asked with an agenda, personal opinions warping what is said into what they desired to hear, and then reporting what they erroneously heard to satisfy their desires politically; every single time. Hence, the problems with active listening and how active listening can be faked. Desire and attitude of service are not being applied to improve customer service focus.
Communication occurs in two different modalities, verbal and non-verbal. Good communicators adapt their message to the audience. Adapting the message requires first a choice, determining who the primary and secondary audience is, then focus the message onto the primary audience. Next, adaptation requires prior planning, which includes mental preparation, practice, and channels for feedback. Finally, adaptation requires listening to achieve mutual understanding, careful observation, asking questions designed to lead to mutual understanding, and clarifying what is being said to achieve mutual understanding.
Too often, those labeled as “good communicators” cannot listen reflectively. They have never learned how to use the tools of desire and attitude of service, in a manner that builds customer service focus into reflectively listening.
Consider two people the media has proclaimed as great communicators, Presidents Reagan (R) and Obama (D). President Reagan was listened reflectively, asked good questions, listened to the answers, asked more questions, and then listened some more. In listening and asking questions, President Reagan built people (customer service focus) and was respected by enemies and friends for his ability to communicate (personal desire determined destiny). President Obama has been labeled by the media as a good communicator; but by all accounts, he never listened, his questions showed he desired to be heard, and his focus was all on him as the smartest person in the room. Desire builds an attitude of service, which then forms the customer service focus, which then reflects a desire to reflectively listen and achieve mutual understanding with those being communicated with.
One of the most despicable problems in customer service today is a theme established by Stephen Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” On a recent issue, a letter was sent to Senator Martha McSally (D) of Arizona, the response has formed the epitome for not listening in written communication as the response had nothing of the original issue even discussed. The response was a form letter, on a different topic, and lacked any response that the sender had been heard; but, the letter advertised Sen. Martha McSally and her commitment to listening to her constituents. But, you might say, a Senator is too busy to respond to every communication delivered, a few other examples of both verbal and non-verbal communication failures.
- Two lieutenants, representing the Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Police Service, stationed at the Phoenix VA Hospital. Engage a person not wearing a mask. Body language clearly states they are the authority and will broker no resistance. The officers spend 45-minutes haranguing the patient before cuffing and frog-marching the patient to a holding cell, where the patient who was seeking services in the emergency room, waits for an additional 60-minutes before being forced off Federal Property. The patient informed the officers multiple times of their pre-existing condition and inability to physically wear a mask. The hospital mask policy allowed for a face shield to be worn instead of a mask, and after the patient put the face shield on, the officers continued to verbally engage without listening, until the foregone conclusion of arresting the patient could be justified. The patient was fined $360.00 (USD) for “disorderly conduct” by refusing to wear a mask.
- Calling a major cellular phone provider (AT&T) with questions about the price plan. The representative answered every question but needed to make a sale, and their focus was on making that sale, not on assisting the customer. Not the agent’s fault, the policy of the call center is to up-sale on every call. If the agent does not up-sale, the call is automatically downgraded in quality assurance and the agent gets in trouble. Hence policy dictates that the customer not be listened too reflectively as the sale must come before the customer.
- Hotel check-in, online registration was made specifically for a particular sized bed, but due to late check-in, the customer is not provided what was asked for, and the attitude of the clerk is one of disgust at being bothered. Verbal and nonverbal cues are sending messages that the customer is the problem and is interrupting the life of the clerk.
- A patient receives a call to make an urgent appointment with a VA medical provider in general surgery. The medical provider has demanded the patient be seen in the clinic, thus negating a phone or video styled appointment. The patient’s record clearly states the patient has trouble complying with mandatory masking for patients seen in the clinic. The provider arrives 20+ minutes late to the appointment, and because the patient is not wearing a mask immediately refuses to see the patient, wasting 90-minutes of the patient’s day. The provider gets off in 10-minutes, and seeing the patient will make the provider late getting off. Was the mask really the problem; not likely.
Not listening is probably the largest social problem in the world today. Everywhere fake active listening is observed, along with copious amounts of observable inactive, selective, and active refusals to listen. Some of the problems in improving listening are policies and procedures that do not allow for individual adaptation or situational understanding. However, too often, the individual choices to grab power, exercise authority, and pass along inconvenience are the real problems in not listening. Harvey Mackay is reported to have said, “Easy listening is a style of music, not an attribute of communication.” Proving again that listening is a choice, a personal choice, borne from desire, bred on attitude and reflected in verbal and non-verbal patterns of communication.
The following are some launch points for improving listening in society:
- Understand your desire. Know that your desire choices are determining your destiny. If your destiny is not one, you appreciate, return to the desire and make different choices.
- Practice mental preparation, based upon previous situations, to make different choices. Listening is a voyage of discovery to reach a mutual understanding, but mental preparation is key to safely reach the destination. Prepare, use a mirror, practice until what currently feels alien becomes familiar.
- Reduce emotion. The principle of empathy and sympathy are destroying listening and only reflect the internal voices. The volume of internal voices is silencing the ability to reflectively listen, necessitating the need to fake actively listening for employment’s sake.
- Listen as you would have others listen to you. This is an adaptation of the “Golden Rule” and remains applicable as a personal choice. How you choose to listen will determine your destiny.
- Listening remains the number one tool you control and has application to written communication and verbal communication channels. Body language is a non-verbal communication channel that can be heard as well as seen. How are you communicating non-verbally, which is interfering with your written and verbal communication attempts?
Listening is a choice. Listening is hard. Yet, many people have pointed out that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as often as we speak. Choose to reflectively listen, choose to reach a mutual understanding, watch your destiny change.
© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.
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