Every day, environmental health and safety professionals make a myriad of decisions using their technical skills, which have far-reaching impacts for both organizations and the public at large. But while those technical skills are crucial, making the right decisions goes beyond this knowledge. Determining the best way to meet the needs of your colleagues and employers, as well as enlisting them to help you meet your goals, takes effective listening.
What is Effective Listening?
Effective listening, a more active form of listening, is a process that goes beyond simply hearing. While you hear with your ears, you listen with your entire body, including your ears, eyes, heart and brain.
“The overarching principle of effective listening is to seek first to understand, then to be understood,” says Rick Fulwiler, PhD, CIH, CSHM, President of Transformational Leadership Associates, a program director at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the former Director of Health and Safety Worldwide at Procter and Gamble. “It requires much more energy than just passive listening, but you will not be as successful without effective listening skills.”
Effective listening, according to Fulwiler, is about words, dance, and music – the other person’s words, tonality, and body language. This is what listening with your entire body is about. It means going beyond someone’s words by paying attention to body language how the words are spoken (music) and putting this into the context of what you know about this individual.
Being able to listen effectively is a skill that must be learned and practiced. This is particularly true in fields such as environmental health and safety, where technical skills are often emphasized over soft skills, such as communication.
How to Listen Effectively
Effective listening is not something that comes naturally to many people. Being able to listen effectively – and then use these skills for influential leadership – is a skill that must be learned and practiced. This is particularly true in fields such as environmental health and safety, where technical skills are often emphasized over soft skills, such as communication.
However, there are many barriers to effective listening, particularly in our modern world. According to Fulwiler, some of the most common are:
- Prejudging the person you need to listen to: People often judge others on qualities such as their appearance, background, or language barriers. However, these judgments can get in the way of truly listening to the message the person is trying to deliver.
- Formulating a response or rebuttal before someone is finished with their message: If you are thinking about how you will respond to someone before they’ve completed their thought, you’re not listening to their complete message. Fulwiler notes that refraining from doing this requires a lot of discipline, because “most of us are active problem solvers.”
- Listening just for facts: Communication is primarily conveyed by words, tone, and body language – but research has shown only seven percent of a message is expressed by words. This makes it even more crucial to embrace effective listening. If you do not pay attention to the emotions behind the facts, as well as expression through body language, you might miss what is driving the message.
- Misunderstanding cultural cues: As our lives become increasingly global, it may be hard to understand the culture of the person you are talking to, or at least understand how it may be different. Without this awareness, it can be difficult to determine the nuances and motivations of what someone is saying.
- Multitasking: With advances in technology, there are more opportunities to multitask than ever. However, if you are looking at your phone while someone else is talking, you cannot listen effectively.
Building positive relations is an important part of leadership, and listening is a critical part of building good relationships.
Once you recognize these barriers and how they might impact your listening skills, you can work on improving your effective listening skills. There many ways to do this, including:
- Reminding yourself that there is a difference between hearing and listening. You might hear what someone else is saying, but ask yourself if you’re truly listening.
- Asking others if you are a good listener. If they say that you are not, ask them what they feel keeps you from being one and concentrate on those weak points.
- When you’re in a situation where you need to truly listen, reminding yourself to seek to understand first and then be understood.
- Focusing on the words, tonality, and body language of the other person. Try to determine the interest and passion behind the words, instead of just listening to the words themselves.
- Keep learning. There are trainings and readings you can do to learn more about how to listen effectively.
By using all these components to practice effective listening, you can develop and strengthen your skills to improve your communication and leadership.
Effective Listening for Effective Leadership
Once you start implementing effective listening, you can put those skills into practice to improve your leadership skills. Effective listening, according to Fulwiler, is a critical component of being a transformational leader, in which you focus on not just the task, but also the person doing the work. This type of leadership is more likely to inspire excellence and dedication from your employees than if you only care about their output.
Building positive relations is an important part of leadership, and listening is a critical part of building good relationships. Actively listening to others lets them know that you are interested in their needs, as well as what they’re trying to say. When people feel that you care about them, it will make them more likely to follow your leadership, says Fulwiler.
Effective listening will help you “sell” your technical skills by allowing you to explain and utilize those skills in a way others understand.
Effective listening is also crucial to selling. You might not think that you are in sales – most people don’t – but anytime you try to influence someone, that’s selling. For example, you, as an environmental and health safety professional, might try to convince management that you need a particular – dust control system to eliminate exposure to a hazardous chemical. – If you are successful in convincing them, you then need to sell the shop floor workers on wearing personal protective equipment while maintaining the system. You might see these as just normal parts of your job, but you are selling solutions.
“We’re constantly in a customer-supplier relationship, even if we don’t realize it,” says Fulwiler. “If I’m not a good listener, I won’t really understand what my customer wants.”
By listening effectively to your customer – anyone you are trying to sell to – you can learn to speak their language. You’ll learn what’s important to them and how to see their world, which helps you become both a better salesperson and – leader.
While technical skills can get you in the door, you won’t be able to use them as successfully without listening skills. Effective listening will help you “sell” your technical skills by allowing you to explain and utilize those skills in a way others understand. In addition, when you listen to others, they are more likely to listen to and understand your intentions.
Effective Listening for Better Communication
Listening effectively is the foundation of effective communication. The best way to make sure others understand what you are trying to say is to truly understand who your audience is and what their needs are. This will allow you to tailor your message so that others are more receptive to it.
Effective listening also promotes empathy, which is not just about understanding others, but being actively sensitive to their needs. Focusing on this, even when speaking to people who may be below you in your organization, will allow you to build better relationships and encourage them to help you meet your needs now or in the future.
“The leading cause of miscommunication is communication,” says Fulwiler. “There is going to be miscommunication, but you can minimize it by ensuring you understand what someone else is really trying to say.”
Effective listening, therefore, can be a powerful tool in the environmental health and safety field that ensures understanding your colleagues, minimizing miscommunication, and improving your leadership capabilities.
Dr. Rick Fulwiler directs Management and Leadership Skills for Environmental Health and Safety Professionals at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.