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Listen Up, It’s Your Best Communication Skill

Listening is often viewed as the most critical communication skill. Effective listening leads to understanding. Ineffective listening can lead to costly misunderstandings and a communication breakdown.
Restaurant managers have many people competing for their attention, often in rapid-fire succession. It’s critical for them to master the art of active listening—fully concentrating on what’s being communicated so you can grasp the important points and respond appropriately.

Here’s how:

Look at the speaker. It keeps your ears pointed in the right direction.
Be quiet. You can’t listen while you’re talking. Avoid “talking over” anyone—that tells the other person you care more about your perspective than theirs.

Don’t Interrupt. Don’t try to finish someone’s thought—people often have to pause to collect their thoughts before proceeding.

Nod. Nodding doesn’t mean agreement; it tells speakers they have the floor and may proceed.
Just listen. Anything else, whether it’s turning to look at someone walking by or checking your smartphone, says you’ve disconnected.

Open your mind. Really think about what the speaker is saying before formulating a mental response. 
Focus on the message, not the delivery. It’s easy to get distracted by communication idiosyncrasies. Don’t mentally criticize the speaker’s style. Listen for the message.

Listen for emphasis. Learn to recognize the main points. Some people convey this with gestures, by speaking louder, or by going soft.

Listen for ideas. Even the most ineffective speakers can deliver nuggets of truth and key learning issues.
Watch for nonverbal cues. Speakers often use their eyes, hands, and body movements to drive home points.

Repeat the message. Paraphrase and restate the speaker’s message back to convey that you heard and understood. It also helps you remember it better.

The bottom line? If people think you’re a poor listener, they’ll stop presenting their ideas and concerns to you. That can be disastrous for your business. It will lower morale, reduce workplace innovation, and send dissatisfied customers straight to your competitors without even giving you the chance to correct a problem.
We all think we’re good listeners. But how do you really know if you listen effectively? Ask the people in your life. Ask them to be completely honest. (Prepare for a possible ego bruising.) If they don’t rate your listening as highly as you do, consider which behaviors(s) you need to work on.

Getting employees to listen

Plenty of managers complain that employees “just don’t listen.” That’s not a restaurant-specific problem. One of my favorite listening stories involves an NBA coach who felt his players weren’t very good listeners. After outlining a series of basketball plays, he offered $50 to any player who could repeat the lesson back. All were eager to claim the prize, but only one came even close. The coach paid up—and immediately set to work on improving both his presentations and his players’ listening skills.

That’s my advice to managers, in that order. First, work on your message delivery. Become a more effective speaker—lose the verbal tics, stress main points, use nonverbal cues. Also consider these techniques to help employees listen better and retain more:

Vary the medium. Add a visual element to your spoken presentations—people are more likely to absorb and retain information that they see as well as hear.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is critical to communicating critical information. The more important the message, the more times it needs to go out. Follow up your conversations—both formal and informal—with an email restating the key points.

Mix good with bad. Employees will tune out if you’re constantly criticizing or imparting negative news. Mix something positive into every message.

Train employees to listen. Employees need to be taught how to listen to customers. Use the behaviors listed above as a starting point for your listening-training program. Employees who listen well to customers will listen well to you.

Finally, don’t be afraid to provide a listening incentive. Fifty dollars was all it took to motivate millionaire basketball players; you can accomplish a lot with much less.