How Do You Listen?
by: Ray Barrett
How many times have you walked away from a conversation and not really remember the specifics of what was discussed? Or, when you returned to your desk to jot down the information you just received, you had trouble recalling some of the details, logic or rationale for the bottom line?
I remember participating in a presentation being given to a senior executive who had a reputation for being gruff and a low tolerance for lazy intellectual rigor. He listened very intently to the person making the presentation and at one point asked the presenter a question. His response went wrong in two ways: he began the answer with several caveats conditioning his response; then proceeded to answer a slightly different question. He had not listened. The executive let him go on for a while, then interrupted him and brusquely said "Just answer my question!"
I also remember once explaining to my boss a possible solution to a situation we were having and about half-way through my explanation he nodded his head, raised a palm toward me and interrupted saying "I got it. Thanks. But I think that will not work." I was shut down without the opportunity to fully explain my idea. As a subordinate I felt demeaned by having my boss dismiss the idea out of hand without fully understanding what I was suggesting. In essence he was saying he didn't value my ideas-by extension that meant he didn't value me.
Listening is a critical leader skill and a behavior that can be learned. All the great leaders and mentors I have worked with were ardent listeners. But so many times I see mid-level leaders listen while looking around the room, typing on their smart phone or computer, interrupting the speaker and/or appearing preoccupied with another thought.
For a leader, careful listening enhances acquiring information. It also conveys to the speaker that you respect their experience, intelligence and opinion. You are in effect communicating to them that they are a valued member of the team. This creates trust and loyalty. As a subordinate, listening carefully enhances your understanding of the boss' decision, guidance and intention that you will then have to carry out. It also shows respect and leads to greater trust.
Listening is a powerful skill. It allows us to gather information and gain greater understanding. It also conveys respect for the speaker and ultimately trust in them.
So, how do you listen? Are you a good listener? Do you finish people's sentences for them, interrupt them, display impatience and look around? If your subordinates were surveyed and asked if you were a good listener what would they say?
Much of the literature about listening involves the term "Active Listening." Many times people will describe someone as an active listener. In fact many leadership courses use the term and teach the five elements normally associated with it: maintain eye contact; don't interrupt; ask clarifying or probing questions; summarize what you heard at the end; and thank them. These are great elements and correct steps for better listening. But the term is all wrong.
The word "active" – in the term active listening-is an action verb and as such it puts your brain into motion, because it knows it has to do something. So if you are trying to improve your listening skills by practicing active listening, your mind will pull up the cerebral checklist of five elements and start scanning them. It will be focused on maintaining eye contact and remind you to not break it. Concurrently, it will keep warning you to not interrupt while at the same time trying to come up with a probing question. All the while, it will begin formalizing a summary of the conversation. "Oh, wait a second, you just broke eye contact! Don't interrupt! What was that question I was going to ask?" Your mind is singularly focused on the checklist and you are not hearing what is being said.
There is a better approach to listening than practicing active listening-Listen to Learn and Understand!
When in this mode, your mind is calm, relaxed and absorptive. Instead of running through a checklist like a frequency-hopping scanner, it is focused on hearing and absorbing what it being said. It is asking: "What new knowledge or updated knowledge am I hearing?" "How does that fit with what I already know?" "Does it make sense; what is the rationale; is it logical?" "Do I fully understand what is being conveyed?"
When you listen to learn and understand, you put your mind in a mode of receiving rather than acting. As you focus on what you are learning and whether you fully understand, positive things will occur: you will naturally maintain eye contact; avoid interrupting; ask clarifying questions to ensure understanding; and grasp an overall recognition of the essence of the speaker's point.
As a leader moves up into positions of greater responsibility and authority, the breadth and complexity of their duties increases. To succeed, they have to become great listeners. Fortunately this skill can be learned. But instead of trying to become a better Active Listener, they should view each conversation as an opportunity to Learn and Understand.
True Growth Takeaway:
Great leaders are great listeners who view every conversation as an opportunity to learn and understand.
True Growth Journal Question:
How can I listen better? Why should I want to?
About the author: Raymond Barrett is a retired Army Major General. After the Army, he was involved in corporate strategic planning, executive coaching and established a research center of the study of interagency cooperation. He has worked with LWM III Consulting for 6 years as a facilitator/coach. He and his wife of 34 years, Joan, have one son.