In our Friday morning book club, as we were discussing Bob Buford’s book Half Time, the subject of listening came up. Although we rarely think of it, listening is a very underappreciated communication skill, not only for leaders, but for all of us. You’ve probably heard people say that God so valued listening that He created us with two ears, while only giving us one mouth to speak with.
One of the members of our book club mentioned how his wife will say to him that he hasn’t heard a word that she had been saying. He is able to repeat the very last thing she had said, but yes, she was right, he heard her but wasn’t listening.
When I was attending seminary there were times during dinner when I was thinking about the reading or studying that I needed to do that evening. My wife could sense this and called me on it. I was preoccupied – physically present with her, but not truly present.
I admit that listening is an area that I can certainly grow in. Years ago I was caught off guard by feedback at work I received from a new boss. They stated that my former director told them that I hear, but don’t listen. I was caught off guard because the former leader, while mentioning that to my new leader, had never shared that feedback with me. But it is true that too often, rather than intensely listening to what someone is saying, I’m thinking ahead to how I will respond. Is that true for you as well?
John Maxwell has stated that a leader’s biggest communication problem is that they do not listen to understand. He tells us that most often, like me, leaders listen to reply. He goes on to state:
“The bottom line is this — when the leader listens, the organization gets better. Is it possible to be a leader without listening? Yes. Is it possible to be a good leader without listening? No. No leader can take an organization to the highest level without being a good listener. Why? Because you can never get the best out of people if you don’t know who they are, where they want to go, why they care, what they think, and what they have to contribute.”
Dr. Alan Zimmerman writes that listening communicates importance and respect. He writes “When you listen to another person, you are saying, “I am listening to you and only you right now. You are getting all of me. No distractions, no mind wandering, no looking at the papers on my desk, no checking my smart phone. You’re getting all of my attention because you’re important to me.”
So, how can we become better listeners? Awareness that we need to improve is really the first step. Here are three other thoughts:
- Practice listening. That may sound strange, but try it. Next time you are meeting with someone, perhaps over dinner or coffee, make it a point to make good eye contact and really listen to them. My guess is that it will feel very different from how you listen today.
- A wise older gentleman that counseled many people would listen very intently and then ask a probing question or two. It takes your full attention and not being distracted to listen and get to underlying issues.
- Confirm what you have heard. To better understand what someone is saying to you, especially in very important or “crucial” conversations, take time to confirm what you think you have heard. Ask the person you are in a conversation with “What I hear you saying is…”. They can either confirm what you have stated or correct it. If you want a great example of how someone’s NOT truly listening and reflecting back what the speaker said, watch this humorous recut version of an interview with Jordan Peterson.
Listening is a very important and underappreciated communication skill. What other ideas and tips do you have for us to improve our ability to really listen?