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Is anyone out there listening?

How far would Alexander Graham Bell have gotten without Mr. Watson at the other end of the line? What would the U.S. Government consist of if no one had paid attention to Paul Revere?

No, this isn't a lesson in American history. I'm referring to the component of effective communication that is second only to giving information clearly: the fine art of listening.

We have all encountered individuals with whom successful two-way communication seems impossible. (Just try giving instructions to a teenager.) You can see by the expressions on their faces that they don't hear a word you are saying. The other end of the spectrum is someone who will look you in the eye, display facial expressions that mirror your message, and respond appropriately to your ideas.

Why are some people better listeners than others?

For one thing, being able to think several times faster than we can speak allows our thoughts to wander as others rattle on. Listeners may be wondering what they should say next, or contemplating something entirely different. This scenario can be extremely frustrating for a laboratorian trying to describe a problem or test result to a physician.

* Clarity. To encourage effective listening from others, tailor your message to your audience. Who would think of addressing a group of non-English-speaking individuals without having an interpreter present to translate the talk into their native tongue? Yet many of us are so accustomed to highly technical terminology that we use it in our conversations with people outside the clinical laboratory without giving it a second thought. The listener may be unfamiliar with our vocabulary and tune out.

To enhance productive communication within your department, allow no discrepancy between what your listener thinks your message means and what you truly mean. Here is an example of how things can backfire.

I once had a secretary who did the work of two. Wanting to pay her a compliment, I remarked, "Gee, you deserve a vacation for all the work you've been doing." When she didn't show up for work the next day. I asked other employees if they knew where she was. To my surprise, I was told that I had given her the day off.

Clearly, our lines of communication had crossed. I thought I was saying, "Nice job." She heard me say "Take a free vacation day."

* Feedback. You can often judge whether your ideas have gotten through to your audience by the comments offered in return. It may be helpful to preface your message with "I'd like to hear your thoughts on..." or "Tell me what you think about...." Providing due warning that you will expect a response to the statements you are about to make will probably persuade your listener to pay attention as you make them.

* Role model. Effective communication will flourish if you work at breaking down both physical and mental barriers between yourself and the staff. Because people hesitate to visit the boss with trivial matters, managers may not hear about a problem until it has become a major issue and therefore far more difficult to solve. Get out of your office as often as you can and let employees know you are interested in hearing what they have to say.

Make a point of holding informal meetings with a cross-section of personnel in which you listen carefully to their concerns and problems. Whenever possible, act on their best suggestions promptly. I am frequently amazed at how many small, easy-to-deal-with issues readily emerge during such a forum.

* It takes two. Anyone who has ever taken a formal communication course can tell you that the majority of class time is devoted to teaching verbal skills such as tone of voice, mannerisms, and delivery. These areas are important, but they constitute only half of the picture. Effective communication doesn't have a chance without the participation of an attentive listener.

As supervisors, we can often communicate more effectively by opening our ears than by opening our mouths.

The author, James M. Maratea, is administrator of clinical laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, Pa.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Viewpoint; interpersonal communication
Author:Maratea, James M.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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