Listening is a Powerful Force

Without a doubt he was a smart man who cared deeply about his community. He was an active participant involved in many organizations serving in a helping role and as an advocate for many good causes.

She was cut from the same cloth, serving as an engaged, responsible citizen who bubbled with energy and ideas.

With their sound core values, good hearts, and the very best of intentions, both should have been considered stellar community leaders.

Yet, as I got to know them better in recent workshop settings, it became clear they both lacked credibility as well as any sort of a following.

When he channeled his passion into one-on-one or small group conversations, peoples’ eyes glazed over, and as an observer I could see them visibly remove themselves from the conversation.

In her case, when a knowledgeable consultant was drawn into the group discussion she had initiated, I watched his reaction and subsequent decision to physically remove himself from the table. That was especially difficult to witness as he had been willing and able to provide relevant and meaningful advice and ideas.

In both cases, I had to stifle my inside voice that wanted to scream at both of them and say, “Shut up and listen!”

While I have yet to understand the drive that made them need to talk incessantly, I do know that listening is an essential skill for anyone — especially our leaders.

We need to listen to obtain information, to better understand, to gain new insights, and, when we hear what people are really saying, it is how we learn. Perhaps most importantly, it is listening that builds the respect and trusted relationships that are an essential component of leadership.

So how do we become a better listener? The answer is to practice what the experts call “active listening”.

This means making a conscious effort to not only hear what another person is saying, but to understand the message being sent.

It begins with paying close attention to the other person. It means listening even when you get bored, there are distractions around you, or you lose focus. It especially requires listening with the intent to understand, rather than listening to reply or prepare a counter argument like the two I recently met who talked over others and finished their sentences.

A good listener will instead concentrate on what is being said by the other person, nodding their head and saying “yes” and “uh huh”, and adding comments or asking questions to clarify what is being said. It could also mean paraphrasing by saying, “It sounds like you are saying” or “What I’m hearing is.” 

As well as listening intently to understand, it will be important to respond appropriately in a respectful and understanding way. That will mean being honest, open, and candid in your response. It is fine to respectfully assert your own opinion as long as it is done in a way that reflects how you yourself would want to be treated.

In the end what it comes down to is that each of us needs to talk less and listen more. While that’s often difficult to do, given that few of us have been taught an active, disciplined kind of listening, it is possible to break bad habits. 

For sure it is difficult to suppress your urge to speak more than listen — I for one am still working hard to break old, bad habits. However, I am learning that with practice and patience it is possible to discipline yourself to listen more effectively and control the urge to interrupt and finish sentences.

Ultimately it will be worth the effort in that listening is a powerful force that draws people toward us. Not only will a good listener never be lonely, he or she will also have far greater influence and credibility than those who prefer the sound of their own voice.

Posted on 03-17-13

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