Monday Mornings with Madison

Are You Listening?

Word Count: 1,212 

Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

Listening is a skill.  We often think of listening as being the same as hearing, but it’s not.  Hearing is one of the five senses that involves the ear.  Whereas, listening is the conscious processing of all types of sounds and input – which could include speaking, music, noise, etc. — received by the ears during communication.  We can hear something and not listen.  Most any parent has experienced this firsthand when they give their child instructions, and the child clearly hears the instructions but cannot follow them because he was not listening. 

Indeed, listening is one of the most under utilized and, in many people, underdeveloped skills.  This is true of kids but it is also quite true of adults.  Many people hear just fine and yet are terrible listeners.  While it is never fun to deal with someone who is a bad listener, it is particularly challenging to deal with a weak listener at work.  That is because at work, listening is the process by which a person – through direct interaction – gains an understanding of the needs, demands, and preferences of the boss, clients, coworkers, subordinates, and vendors.  Poor listening results in a hazy understanding, which in turn leads to mediocre results.   That said, if listening well so important, then why is it a skill deficient in so many?  More importantly, what constitutes good listening and what kinds of things can a person do to become a better listener?

Why a Lousy Listener?

According Dr. Scott Williams at Wright State University, “Almost everyone sincerely believes that he or she listens effectively.  Consequently, very few people think they need to develop their listening skills.  But, in fact, listening effectively is something that very few do.”[1] In a study conducted of over 8,000 people employed in businesses, hospitals, universities, the military and government agencies, it was found that virtually all of the respondents believed they communicate as effectively or more effectively than their co-workers.[2] Logic dictates that everyone cannot be above average?

So why can’t most people listen when they can undoubtedly hear?  There are various reasons.

  1. Too much noise.
    In a world full of noise and sensory input, we train our ears to block out sounds that we don’t need to process.  Airplanes fly overhead and people who live below flight paths hardly notice.  Cars constantly honk in urban areas and one scarcely acknowledges the cacophony.   Ignoring all the chatter in a restaurant allows diners to speak to one another without even noticing the racket.  The problem is that this constant effort to block out sounds teaches us early on how to ignore a lot of input.
  2. Thinking of a response.Another reason people are lousy listeners is that they are so busy formulating an answer to the exchange of information that they stop listening.  This happens a lot.  This often reflects a degree of arrogance that says “I know what you’re going to say, I thought that through, and I know better than you.”
  3. Interruptions.
    Some people are subpar listeners because they are always interrupting the flow of conversation, making it impossible for the other person to make his/her point.
  4. Talking too much.
    Monopolizing a conversation is also a sign of a terrible listener.  But the underlying cause might indicate vanity or conceit, or it could be a sign of insecurity and a need to be the center of attention.

President Calvin Coolidge once said “It takes a great man to be a good listener.”  Good listening involves a number of behaviors.  Here is what a good listener does.

  1. Listens Attentively
    A good listener is an attentive one.  People listen not only with their ears, but they also communicate that they are listening with their body language.  Keep in mind that 80% of all communication is non-verbal.  Attentive listening includes apparent interest in the topic, gestures such as nodding to let the speaker know there is comprehension and / or head tilting, eye contact, upright posture, and facial expressions.
  2. Reflects ThoughtfullyA good listener will take time to digest and actually process information for comprehension.  That might include repeating and paraphrasing what was said, such as “So what you’re saying is….” or “What I’m understanding is…” in order to confirm and show genuine understanding.
  3. Asks QuestionsA good listener will ask questions that promote discovery and insight.  The questions are meant to clarify and expand on what is being said, not contradict or make an opposing point.  Good listening involves genuine curiosity.
  4. Provides a Safe Space
    A good listener will create a safe environment that is conducive to open dialogue and allows the speaker to openly discuss issues and express differing points of view.
  5. Has a Cooperative Conversation A good listener will have conversations that are positive and build self-esteem.   The feedback in such exchanges flow back and forth in both directions.  Truly listening to someone is one of the most empowering gifts a person can receive.
  6. Seeks Common GroundA good listener will skillfully make suggestions that open up alternative paths to agreement.
  7. EmpathizesA good listener will seek to understand the emotions and feelings of the speaker about the topic at hand.  Listening is about more than just the words spoken.  It is about the speaker’s connection to the subject.

Listening and Leadership go Hand-in-Hand

It is important for all people to be good listeners.  But, for leaders, it is an essential quality.  To a large degree, effective leadership is effective listening.  A study of managers and employees of a large hospital system found that listening explained 40% of the variance in leadership.[3] It is the ability to listen intently, with an open mind, which allows leaders to take in new opportunities and ideas.  Only a leader who believes that others have something worth saying… something worth hearing… will listen attentively and reflect thoughtfully.  That is why listening might just be the unsung hero of leadership traits.  Effective listening is also a way of showing concern for employees.  It fosters cohesive bonds, trust and respect.  Listening tends to reduce the frequency of conflicts.  When a leader listens to the staff, s/he learns their individual personalities and nuances.  This makes the leader better able to motivate, encourage and praise direct reports.

In her book “Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain wrote “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”  But the sentiment did not originate with her.  As far back as the Roman Empire, Zeno of Citium was quoted as saying “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”  Even thousands of years ago, listening skills were valued and recommended at twice the rate of speaking.  Hmmm.  Maybe that’s something worth listening to.

Quote of the Week

“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” Alfred Brendel

[1] By:  Dr. Scott Williams, You Probably Don’t Listen as Effectively as You Think You Do … and You Probably Don’t Know It, LeaderLetter, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.

[2] 1979, Haney, W. V.  Communication and interpersonal relations.  Homewood, IL: Irwin.

[3] 1997, Kramer, R.  Leading by listening: An empirical test of Carl Rogers’s theory of human relationship using interpersonal assessments of leaders by followers.  Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University.


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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