Listening – the number 1 communication skill

In my experience, people tend to focus on oral and written communication skills and not what I think is the number 1 communication skill – listening.

Listening – the number 1 communication skill by Nancy Knowlton

I see a lot of resumes, and I think that I am safe in saying that I have pretty much heard and read it all. I have seen resumes that have clearly been prepared with a great deal of thought and perspective, tailored to the specific opportunity. No detail is too small to overlook. The layout is professional, often with a picture of the individual included. In fact, many resumes are so professional looking these days I often wonder if they have been professionally prepared, both in terms of the profile and layout.

I have read a lot of resumes at the other end of the spectrum as well – ones where it seems apparent that the subject really doesn’t care about the individual reader or at least hasn’t considered him. These resumes feel like they have been pulled together for a generic opportunity with a strict chronological recording of roles and responsibilities. There is no attempt to highlight or report on relevant experience, knowledge and perspective at a summary level.

Communication skills

People have learned that most companies want to hire people who have strong written and oral communication skills. In fact, many job postings use that exact expression, referencing the requirement very high up in the list of desired skills. So what do I see in most resumes? That exact phrase prominently placed in cover letters and sprinkled throughout a variety of jobs and in skills summaries, as proof positive that the applicant offers that skill.

Meet job applicants in person and ask them to comment on their communication skills. Then sit back and enjoy a usually detailed description of what good communication skills they have. This open-ended question does indeed have a similarly open-ended answer for many.

Communication starts with listening

For me, few people ever address this question in an appropriate fashion. It’s not about talking or writing as most assume – communication starts with listening. Listening includes what people say and what they write. Listening is a lot more than just waiting for your turn to speak.

I always listen to what people say to me and how they say it. I construct a picture in my mind so that I can get to deep understanding. Sometimes the words all seem good but on close examination, they don’t actually mean anything. Listening is hard work and requires focus and concentration.

I also try to gauge the listening skills of others measured in terms of how they react to what I say. I ask questions and listen to the answers that I receive. How people respond and what they say tells me a lot about their listening skills, much more so than a direct question about the quality of their listening skills.

Importance and value of listening skills

Let me give an example of the importance and value of listening skills. I once traveled with a very successful salesperson on a series of sales calls in a major U.S. city. On one call, we met with a panel of people who challenged us with some difficult questions peppered throughout the salesperson’s presentation. After about half an hour a man entered the room. He received a brief summary from the panel and then asked a few questions. He nodded and then turned to the next most senior person in the room and said something about making it happen. As quickly as he came into the room, he left. The salesperson finished his presentation, picking up where he left off before the interruption. We left the call with a strong follow-up plan, including the provision of a quote.

As we drove away, I asked the salesperson when he thought that he had made the sale. He stopped for a moment and said that it was right at the end of his presentation when he and the customer talked about follow-up actions. I saw it differently – he actually had made the sale as soon as the senior person indicated to make it happen and left the room. We should have immediately moved to the follow-up steps and bypassed the remainder of the presentation. It was apparent that the salesperson was more focused on his process than on listening to the customer. He had steps through which he wanted to work, because this approach had been successful for him in the past. The process was missing the step of listening for the signals that the sale was made.

If you really care about communication skills, you’ll put listening skills at the top of the list – way ahead of speaking and writing skills. You’ll develop a means to understand the existence and strength of this skill in applicants and staff. For staff, you’ll openly talk about this skill and work to more fully develop it.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.