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From Steward Update: Volume Twenty-Four, Number Two

Effective communication is a foundation block for every steward. You need it to deal with management, with your co-workers and with your own leadership. And a smart steward knows that effective communication involves a two-way street: Not only do you provide information but you also take it in. You listen to what others have to say. To do it right, in fact, you don’t just listen, but you actually hear what they’re saying.

The difference between simply listening to people talk and actually hearing them out involves a technique called “active listening.” Good teachers and politicians –and just all-around likeable people –are known for this characteristic, which seems so natural that most don’t realize it’s a learned trait.

For stewards, actively listening improves relationships, reduces misunderstandings and conflicts, strengthens cooperation and fosters understanding between you and your co-workers.

Don’t Talk AT, Talk WITH
Poor listeners talk at people, not with them. They don’t engage the speaker in a real dialogue, which is two-sided and mutually beneficial. Having a dialogue with someone is much more productive than just talking at each other.

Good stewards not only listen to members who approach them, they also seek those too afraid to make the first move. Some of your members won’t speak up because they believe that no one has ever really heard them out. Even the members who do approach you may feel this way, so it benefits everyone when you, the steward, actively listen to what they have to say.

A steward who actively listens is more than just a sounding board for members who have a gripe. Active listening engages both you and the speaker and enlightens you to new perspectives. You get a chance to become involved in the topic in a way that wasn’t possible before your dialogue began.

Remember that you actively listen when you interact with your members as they talk. This interaction occurs in a number of ways:

Maintaining eye contact. Keeping your eyes on the speaker as he talks lets him know you’re not distracted by other thoughts, even if you really are. It also helps you to block those other rampant thoughts and keeps you focused on the matter at hand.

Reading body language. Active listeners look beyond words and find clues in the speaker’s demeanor to let them know what he might be saying. Nonverbal communication consists of posture, gestures, facial expressions and eye movements. For example, someone who is speaking calmly but has clenched fists may be masking aggression or resistance. And be sure to watch out for your own body language. Putting your hands in your pockets or looking to the sky when someone is talking denotes boredom or disinterest in the conversation.

Paraphrasing what is being said. Restarting what the speaker says puts his ideas in your own words so that you’re confirming what you have heard. You’re also establishing mutual understanding of the situation by saying things like, “So, what you’re saying is…” or “Let me get this right…” This gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify or disagree. When you paraphrase someone else’s words, you ensure that the speaker and you are ultimately on the same page and you reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings that could hinder successful communication.

Asking follow-up questions. Stop the speaker at different intervals to ask for more information on certain points. The information could be more facts or it could be the speaker’s feelings about a topic. Asking follow-up questions shows the speaker that you’re concerned with getting all the information and that you want to understand the entire story. When you ask questions, make sure not to judge the speaker or his ideas. Try not to offer any personal opinions because that might cause him to feel criticized and stop talking.

You might even want to take notes, if appropriate, even if the person is simply venting. Taking notes has two upsides. For one, it makes the other person feel that what he has to say is important. Second, just as maintaining eye contact keeps you focused on the matter at hand, taking notes also helps to reduce the chances of your thoughts wandering off.

Empathizing. Let your members know you care about where they’re coming from, even, if you find it hard. Saying things like, “that must have been difficult for you,” or “That wasn’t fair for you…” puts the speaker at ease and makes him feel understood and helps release tension. A good empathizing statement includes a brief summary of the information (paraphrasing) and a general statement about the emotion you are observing.

Set Time Limits on the Conversation
Remember that your time is just as important as you member’s, so don’t hesitate to set a limit on the duration of the conversation. Also, just as you wouldn’t verbally abuse anyone within your membership, don’t take any abuse from them. Not all conversations are going to be placid and run smoothly, but the more heated ones do not need to escalate either.

Successful communication is the establishment of common ground between you and your membership. Being a good steward means a lot of things, but chiefly it means being committed to effective communication. Active listening is the key to any steward’s engagement with his membership. It demonstrates sincerity and that nothing is being assumed or taken for granted. Remembering to actively listen will help you become a more successful representative to your union.

-Stephanie Correlli. The writer is on the staff of Steward Update.