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When my daughter was born, I quickly learned that truly “listening” was the foremost parenting skill that I needed to be among the most attentive fathers. “Hearing” was one thing – that is, a cry is a cry from a baby. But, truly listening – that is, hearing with focus and intent – told me what she truly needed. I learned that listening allowed me to tell the difference between one of her cries and another, whether she was hungry, needed a diaper change, or a myriad of other needs.

Indeed, through raising my daughter, I witnessed first-hand the importance of listening in all aspects of life, from relationships to my career. And, I've subsequently found it interesting how when I ask others how they can improve their communication skills, they're quick to note aspects like being more charismatic, being more outgoing, being a better writer, or increasing their vocabulary. Yet, no one ever replies, “Be a better listener.”

However, if you think about all of the communication skills that we possess, none help us succeed more in our relationships and careers than being a great listener. Think about the single trait that makes the best spouse, parent, friend, doctor, pastor, boss, salesman, and on and on – it's those who truly listen to us. See, when we truly listen, we're making the sincerest attempt to understand and connect with others – and that creates remarkable bonds and outcomes. Put simply, if you want to excel in all areas of life, develop your listening skills.

In the mobility industry, among the biggest shortcomings that I encounter is a lack of listening by industry professionals, myself sometimes included, as I'm forever developing my skills. Our industry's history is that of a medical model, where products have long been prescribed, and in a prescription model, there's really only “telling,” no listening. However, times have been changing, where our industry is shifting from a medical model to a consumer model – and “listening” is the single biggest market advantage that a company or professional can have. It's a very simple strategy – there's no secret here! – truly listen to consumers, give them what they want, and everybody wins. As mobility professionals – and, more so, just as people – our obligation is to serve others, and that begins by truly listening.

Again, I'm forever a work in progress, including with my now teen daughter, where each morning I mentally review what transpired between us the night before to ensure that I've truly listened, that I fully understand what I can do to best meet her needs (and, as a parent, listening isn't merely based on verbal communication, but also key aspects like observation [as with any form of listening, where much of what's said is unsaid]). I follow this same process in my professional life, where I try to listen above all else, and I often intellectually review situations to enure that I've truly listened, that I've truly understood what others need.

An example of my practice in listening was recently seen on the mobility-related message forum that I run. Consumers complained that mechanisms on the back of power recline seating were both ugly and obtrusive, taking away the aesthetics of a sleek power wheelchair, as well as preventing the use of backpacks. I promptly responded by explaining why the mechanisms were there, that they are common on many power recline systems, and so on. However, I soon realized that while my explanation was technically right, I was totally wrong. See, I wasn't truly listening. Sure, I had accurately explained why the mechanisms were there, but no one asked why they were there! Rather, when I went back and truly listened, what consumers were saying was that they simply didn't want the mechanisms there, or at least they wanted the mechanisms dramatically minimized. By my not listening properly the first time, I jeopardized consumers' trust, I jeopardized not understanding what consumers wish – potentially among the most grave errors that I could make. However, by following up with my own self-analysis and finding my error – that is, realizing that I hadn't truly listened to what consumers were saying because I was busy explaining (a poor way to communicate!) – I was then able to reassess my approach, and fully understand what was wished by consumers. Of course, I immediately discussed the consumer demand for slimmer power seating with my CEO, then took it to our engineering team who was clear on the objective. No, I don't know how the literal mechanical issues will be solved – that's a longer engineering process. However, simply listening to consumers proved an invaluable catalyst for what needed to be solved – the first step toward meeting consumer demand.

Beyond the obligation of manufacturers listening to consumers, there's likewise a vast need of increased listening to consumers by clinicians and providers. Order forms and specification sheets should not be the only prompts for conversation during the assessment process. Knowing what color wheelchair a consumer wishes, or recognizing the need for clinical aspects like power tilt seating, should not be confused for listening. I always advise clinicians and providers to take five minutes, put all paper work and training aside, and speak with the consumer, person-to-person. Chat about what the consumer does for a living; chat about the consumer's home life; chat about the consumer's hobbies; and, chat about the consumer's past experiences or present concerns about mobility products. When a clinician or provider truly listens during this informal discussion, he or she will learn invaluable information toward fitting the right mobility technology – information, again, that just can't be obtained in a by-the-book assessment that's more about telling than listening. Forms and protocols don't listen; only sincere people do.

Alas, from raising our kids to elevating our careers, among the best moves that we make is the quietest – where we simply strive to be better listeners. And, when we intently listen to others, an amazing transformation occurs: we not only learn how to best serve someone's needs, but we also truly connect with others, person-to-person. Why merely hear when so much is gained by truly listening.

Published 2/2012, Copyright 2012, WheelchairJunkie.com