Listening takes practice

Juggling multiple priorities, untangling scheduling conflicts, attending to resident care issues—all in a day’s work for you. These activities involve interacting with residents, colleagues, and staff, and communication is the linchpin. You may not realize it, but good listening skills can mean the difference between a productive workday and a day when events overtake you, because listening is a key component of effective communication.

How many times do you say “I heard you” to convey “I understand what you’ve said”? Although we often use the words listen and hear interchangeably, they are not the same. Hearing is the physical process of the ears receiving sounds and transmitting them to the brain. Listening requires the brain to absorb the meaning of the sound; it takes attention and concentration. Good listeners engage in active listening, which means that they consciously strive to hear the message and encourage two-way communication based on it.

Think about a typical communication with any one of the diverse individuals with whom you interact. Can you clearly recall your end of the conversation, while the other person’s words are a blur? Chances are your mind wandered, or you focused on what you were planning to say next. If the topic under discussion was staff assignments, you might even have mentally rearranged the next shift’s personnel to ensure adequate coverage, even before the conversation was done—sometimes a risky proposition.

Fortunately, you can improve your listening skills without great effort or arduous training. Most important is a willingness to adjust your communication style, and attending to these guidelines:

Take the time to really listen to the speaker.With so much on your mind, it’s tempting to hold a conversation while thinking about one (or more) pressing concerns simultaneously. Resist that temptation! If necessary, take deep breaths, which slow down your thinking and help to clear your mind. Then, adjust your body language so that your mind—and body—can work together to focus on the issue at hand.

Give your full attention to the speaker.If you are in face-to-face communication, lean forward and make and maintain eye contact. Nod your head to show that you are engaged in the conversation, and offer encouragement with appropriate comments and questions. This does not mean that you are showing agreement; you only need to convey interest in hearing someone’s point of view and the facts as s/he perceives them. To check your understanding, paraphrase what the speaker said—for example: “Did I hear you say that…” or “Did you mean…?”

Acknowledge.Closely related to the point made directly above is to let the speaker know that you heard the message. When you acknowledge the message, you also acknowledge the speaker and, by inference, show respect. This is an especially powerful tactic when communicating with residents, who keenly feel their loss of mobility, personal power, and health. The simple act of listening is a way to acknowledge their worth.

Adjust your thought speed.It’s been said that while people can speak at 100 to 175 words per minute, they can listen at 600 to 800 words per minute. Since you can think three to four times faster than your conversation partner can speak, you need to keep your mind from wandering, especially if the pace of the discussion is too slow or repetitive. Of course, an elderly resident or one with a speech impairment presents extra challenges in these situations. So, how can you adjust? By constantly analyzing what the other person is saying. Stay focused on the information, issue, or problem being conveyed, and determine whether you are receiving sufficient objective information to take appropriate action.

Listen to the “music behind the words.”When you are in close physical proximity, pay attention to body language, facial expressions, gestures—the nonverbal cues that amplify your understanding of the words. We’ve all experienced the situation in which someone’s enthusiastic message is belied by a flat tone and sour facial expression. If you are communicating by phone (perhaps with a resident’s concerned relative), and therefore lack visual cues, listen for uncomfortable pauses or a negative tone. If you sense there is more to the story than you are being told, ask probing questions in an objective way. Refrain from expressing frustration, anger, or disbelief, all of which can shut down communication. Find a way to reach common ground, and close the conversation with words like “Do we agree the issue is…” or “We’ll take the following steps to correct….”

Don’t become distracted.Although there are endless opportunities during your challenging workday to split your attention among several priorities or heed various sensory inputs, stay focused during a conversation. Don’t let paging systems, phones, or anything else act as a diversion. The quicker you can successfully dispense with one issue, the faster you can move on to the next.

Don’t overreact to someone’s style.It is not uncommon for the stress of the moment to cause a resident to become difficult or so emotional that you have an immediate negative reaction. Don’t let yourself lose track of the message just because the speaker’s style or personal characteristics are not to your liking. Age and illness are not easy for anyone to bear, and it’s helpful to remember that you are not the cause of the frustration. Your job is to handle difficulties as professionally as possible. Ask yourself, “What do I need to know so I can make an appropriate decision about the matter at hand? Am I getting the information that I need to know?” Stay on track and you’ll be much more inclined to reach a sensible resolution.

Practice.Listening, like playing the piano, improves with practice. Think of specific ways you can adjust your attitude when difficult situations distract you from listening as closely as you would like. It’s helpful to think of a trigger that you can concentrate on if you stray from the plan. This trigger can be a physical item, like an ID card that you can grasp, or a word that will clear your mind—waterfall, ocean, and calm are examples. You can practice this technique any time, anywhere, and the more you do it the easier it becomes.

Developing and refining your listening skills is a win-win—your conversation partner gains a more empathetic listener, and your energy can be focused where it matters most—on meeting the daily challenges of delivering quality care to residents.

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Yael Sara Zofi is the Founder and CEO of AIM Strategies® (Applied Innovation Management®), a New York City–based consulting firm focused on bringing applied behavioral science techniques to managing businesses in healthcare and other fields. Before establishing AIM Strategies in 1998, she was the Vice-President of Performance Management, Leadership, and Organizational Development for JPMorgan. As a Professor at New York University, she designed and taught the courses “Leadership and Business Transformation,” “Leadership and Management Skills,” and “Management Principles and Ethical Practices.” Susan Meltzer has worked in the HR field for more than 25 years. She specializes in recruitment, training, and employee relations.

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