No employee-owner has ever been arrested for committing a communication crime, but maybe we ought to start issuing some citations. Because poor communication can lead to dissatisfied customers, frustrated co-workers, bad business decisions and, ultimately, a lower ESOP stock value. And that’s a crime.

There is hope, however. You can make your company a safer place for effective communication. The trick is to recognize what you’re doing, or not doing, and take steps to right a wrong. One easy place to start is your listening skills. As the old phrase says, we all have one mouth and two ears and need to spend more time listening, rather than talking.

Here are five practical tips you and your fellow employee-owners can implement now to reduce your “criminal” behaviors and become more effective communicators:

1) Make Time to Listen
We’re all so super-busy in our go-go lives that we often don’t make time to listen. But, at the same time, we feel like we can’t turn someone away either. So, we multitask instead and engage in some half-hearted hearing: replying to an email while someone speaks to us, or typing a text as our spouse relates his or her day. If you’re too busy to listen, respect the other person and tell him or her: “I’m working on something right now and won’t be able to fully listen, but if you come back in an hour, I’ll be happy to give you my full attention.” Likewise, if someone isn’t giving you their undivided attention, offer to come back when they’re not so distracted. Most things don’t require immediate attention. And everyone appreciates being respected.

2) Learn to Listen, Not Just Hear
If you stop reading this piece for fifteen seconds, sit back in your chair, relax and quiet your mind to focus on listening, you’ll hear a jumble of background “white noise.” You hear that noise all day long but filter it out. And like the rest of us, you utilize the same mental filter when people talk about subjects that don’t interest you. As English author G.K. Chesterton said, “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” If someone takes the initiative to raise a work-related issue, he or she is informing you about it for a reason. It’s up to you to pay attention — because engaging employees as owners often begins with listening to their ideas, concerns, complaints and questions.

3) Control and Eliminate Distractions
Hearing is involuntary (you can’t close your ears), but listening is voluntary (you choose whether to listen to someone). Reform how you listen by exercising control over your environment to minimize workplace distractions. That means you’ll want to stroll away from loud machinery, leave the crowded break room, turn off the computer, put away the cell phone — and pay attention to the speaker. You have more power to control the environment than you think.

4) Ask Questions to Check Your Own Understanding
Often a quick statement like “Just to make sure I understand, what you’re saying is …” can stop miscommunication before it starts. Checking for meaning will help you understand complex instructions, decipher difficult material and stay with hard-to-follow speakers. As you practice this behavior, keep yourself from interrupting to ask your question. Don’t worry, you’ll get to ask it. Slow down, exercise your mind’s patience muscle and ask your questions after the speaker finishes.

5) Dump Your Assumptions
On the flip side, don’t focus so much on what question you’re going to ask that you stop listening. When someone talks, your mind processes the information much quicker than the speaker can relay it. People usually speak at 100-125 words per minute; your brain can process 350-400 words per minute (even motor mouth auctioneers only achieve 250 words per minute). All that processing power can cause your restless mind to jump ahead of the speaker, daydream or formulate a response before the other person finishes talking. Deploy that extra brainpower to eliminate your assumptions and actively listen to the person. Try it, you may hear something you didn’t expect.

Let’s face it, we’re all communication criminals. The good news: We all can be reformed. The bad: The recidivism rate for communication crimes, alas, is quite high. But, reducing your “criminal” behaviors will have a positive effect on company culture, employee engagement and ESOP stock value. There are countless opportunities to improve our communication, making our companies and lives better. Why not start now?

Workplace Development provides skills training and organizational development services to ESOP-owned businesses nationwide. Please contact Jim Bado at 419-427-2435 or to discuss how WDI’s services help you to eliminate communication offenses at your company.