How well do you listen?

To get an accurate perspective, you should probably ask the people with which you live and work. It’s not uncommon to score yourself higher than others might. After all, in today’s fast-paced world, listening well is something of a lost art.

Distractions, interruptions and the shear volume of information and interactions that you deal with each day is enough to reduce anyone’s ability to listen thoroughly. Then there’s the issue of who and how messages are being sent. For this exercise, let’s look at messages coming from outside of your business.

“In my previous life as a consulting veterinarian, I was the one who did most of the talking while my clients—hopefully— were listening,” says Paul Johnson, a veterinarian who runs a livestock production system in Climax, Ga. “Today, the roles are reversed, and, I have had to learn to listen critically. Failure to do so can result in what I call Information Overload Syndrome.”

IOS is a real source of frustration and confusion on farms today.

Johnson shares an example: “During the past month, five different vendors have dropped by; each one trying to convince me to buy his/her product. While the sales pitches sounded good, I first must decide if I need the product at all.”

So, who should you listen to?

To avoid IOS, you must train yourself to listen critically so that you can sort out the valuable information from the clutter.

Here are some steps that Johnson uses to listen critically.

  • Talk to employees
    They can be your most reliable information source when it comes to the daily operation of your business. If you don’t already have procedures established to talk with your employees regularly, whether it means visiting with them individually or holding organized staff meetings, get a plan in place. If cultural or language barriers limit your communication, find ways to overcome the challenge.

    Before you buy a product or service, ask your employees if it would be useful or effective. “Whether your operation needs fine-tuning or a major overhaul, talk to your staff about it,” says Johnson. “Of course, then you have to listen carefully to what they say.”

    Encourage openness. It’s important for you to be quiet, and focus on hearing what your people say. 

    “You might be surprised how much insight your staff has into the situations you face,” says Johnson.

  • Utilize advisers
    If you’re using consultants or advisers, challenge them to deliver information that will move your business forward. Naturally you’ll expect them to present supportive facts and data for any strategies or changes they propose for your operation, but the key is that their explanations are clear and understandable.

    Structure their visits to fit your immediate needs. Let them know of any resource constraints or limitations that might keep you from fully implementing their recommendations.

    “Don’t let a consultant dictate the direction of your business,” says Johnson. “Speak up if you are not in synch with the recommendations being offered.”

    A good listener also must be a forceful speaker when the need arises. Otherwise, you may find yourself trying to fulfill the advisor’s goals instead of yours. Ask questions—it’s a listener’s best tool.

  • Allied industry
    “Information from this group is probably the hardest to manage,” notes Johnson. “But it’s also where most cutting-edge technology originates. It is important to listen closely so you can remove financial bias and determine whether a company’s goods or services have merit for your operation.”

    Company representatives who take time to make an appointment get the first consideration. “Courtesy and professionalism go a long way toward getting anyone to listen to what you have to say,” he adds. The ones that get to know your system and bring the most relevant information get the most consideration.

  • Take action
    You should not fear IOS, but learn how to listen critically so that you can sort through information effectively.

    “Critical listening skills also apply when reading a magazine, browsing a Web site or attending a meeting,” says Johnson. “Learn to listen, filter and analyze information. Then, take the appropriate action to move your business forward.”