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Good communication skills are essential for a successful career. We practice for oral presentations, perfect our posters, and revise written documents. But how much time do we spend preparing to listen?

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

Any communication between two people involves what the speaker thinks was said, what the speaker actually said, what the listener heard, and what the speaker thought the listener heard, so there’s often room for misinterpretation. The following are some ways to ensure that you accurately receive the messages others are sending.

Active listening.

After you finish listening to someone, repeat back what they said in your own words to make sure you understand their position. By putting it into your own words, you confirm that you have correctly interpreted what you heard them say. You don’t have to agree with what they said, just make sure that you understand it.

Empathetic listening.

More than just understanding the words, empathetic listening involves paying attention to body language and tone of voice to understand how the speaker feels about what was said. Try to put yourself in the speaker’s place, and identify emotional reactions to the topic.

Physical comfort.

Real listening is hard work. If you are hungry, angry, cold, or tired, it will be hard to focus. Even worse, you may project your emotions onto the speaker. Before beginning a serious discussion, make sure you are physically comfortable and ready to listen.

Adversarial situations.

When the speaker is negative or hostile, it’s up to the listener to respond in a way that defuses the situation. Acknowledge but don’t judge their complaints, and then turn it around by saying, “I have heard what you don’t want. Can you tell me what you do want?” This starts a cooperative dialogue toward resolution.

Listening to feedback.

Feedback is incredibly valuable, but it can be difficult to accept. You should actively seek feedback so you can learn and improve. When it comes to feedback, make sure you are physically comfortable and ready to hear it. Repeat comments in your own words, and have the other person confirm your understanding. Watch the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and emotional state to see if there might be a message behind the message.

Does this person have a vested interest in your performance or a specific reason for sharing this information at this time? If the comments are not uniformly positive, you are very likely to get angry or defensive and want to immediately jump in and defend yourself. Resist the urge to do this. Thank the person for their time and honesty, then go away and ponder for at least 24 hours. Very often, once you get over your initial defensiveness, you will see the truth in the feedback.

Much like writing and speaking, listening is a learned skill. It takes time, effort, and practice to do it well. But truly listening to what someone else has to say is one of the best things you can do for that person, and learning to listen well will only enhance your professional relationships. And remember, listening is not the same thing as waiting to talk.

Get involved in the discussion.

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).

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