So much has changed about the workplace, so many of our social interactions take place in new ways. Clearly our old communication skills are going to be less important, and we’ve got to learn new ones, right? What’s the most important communication skill you can develop these days?
What if I told you it’s the same one it was a hundred years ago?
Hearing (or reading) comes naturally, but listening requires active investment. Active listening, empathic listening, listening with intent … these do not come naturally.
Recently a colleague and friend of mine, Gina, wrote about her experiences at a conference. She shared a fascinating story about how a group of women self-organized at the conference and had a discussion about the sociological factors which impacted them in the workplace and beyond, and how that connected to so few women deciding to present at the conference (and others like it).
What’s interesting to me is what people heard when they read her post. I had a chat with Gina about the subject, and did my best to really listen and understand what she was trying to say. I then tried my best to listen to what other people were saying about the subject … and there have been no shortage of bloggers offering their opinions. I won’t link them all here, but so much discussion went on that further follow-up posts were needed, and it all led to even more confusion about what was originally being said.
I found something agreeable in every post I read about the subject, but what stood out most to me was that none of them really seemed to be approaching the subject from the same starting point. If I put myself in each of the writers’ shoes, I could understand what they were trying to say — people in general aren’t inherently unreasonable.
It’s not a leap in logic to apply that same principle to the original discussion. Each participant in the conversation was hearing something different, because they began the conversation in a different place.
It’s hard enough to empathize and actively listen when you’re directly present in a conversation, witness to all the body language and able to ask clarifying questions. Imagine how hard it is when all you have to go by is a couple paragraphs of a blog post … or worse, 140 characters on a microblogging site?
If you really want to make the most out of the new technologies and norms that make up the 21st-century workplace, you’ve got to push your listening skills beyond the last century’s limitations. The skills are the same, but the fine details of using them? Lots of changes. We spend so much time talking about how to blog, how to update your twitter feed, how to promote yourself … but at the core there’s something so much more important we should be nurturing.