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Develop the Capacity to Listen, Not Just to Hear

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

One of the most important skills in business -- and frankly anywhere in life where there are more people than just you -- is the ability to listen. Many don’t know what this actually means. Many mistake hearing for listening. 

Hearing is done with your ears. Listening involves the brain. Hearing is the faculty of perceiving sounds, the function of the ear that allows you to distinguish sounds. But when you actually listen, you can absorb what is spoken and even what isn’t, and sometimes this means listening so well that it can challenge what you believe. It’s why when someone says to me, I hear you, I’m tempted to respond, I’m certain you do, but are you listening to me?

Most businesses face moments of truth, where they are getting feedback, whether words or data, on how they are doing. Before the knee-jerk defensive canons start blasting, it’s worthwhile to listen carefully to what is being offered. In business, it is even better if you can create systems to allow a true capacity to always listen. In my restaurant company, Farmers Restaurant Group, we have what we call our Social Media Neutralizer, a process we use when responding to negative feedback, primarily online, but this process is useful even with live, in-person feedback. This Neutralizer can help you decide how to respond to the information being received.

Some of this is timing. Allowing enough time for the person talking to actually get their full and complete thought out before you jump in to react and respond. You may have friends or colleagues who interrupt all the time, where it feels hard to even get a word in edgewise. Or friends whose words are always nipping at your heels as you speak. I think of all of these folks as not only poor listeners, which they are, but also conversational multi-taskers. They are simultaneously hearing what you are saying and preparing their response while you are talking. We know multi-taskers are essentially doing a lot of things at once – badly – so multi-tasking in conversation, whether business or pleasure, is never wise.

If you are lucky, you have that rare friend or colleague who pauses after you speak allowing you to always convey everything you want and allowing time to then collect and process his or her thoughts. Sometimes these folks can feel like awkward conversationalists at first. It can feel too slow-paced and methodical. There are moments of silence, which many rush to fill, but if you allow for them, these gifts of quiet can be great fodder for real appreciation for what has been said, and consideration of what you want to say in response. In truth, these slow conversationalists, the pausers, are the real listeners. They aren’t multi-tasking. They are giving you their all, their undivided attention. Or as the wise Stephen Covey has said, they are listening with the intent to understand. Not the intent to reply.

Developing good listening skills, like your friend that may seem like a slow conversationalist in the din of interrupters and blurters, is necessary business acumen. In business, listening extends beyond individual words and communication between colleagues and partners to often trying to listen to a chorus of voices at once, some in unison, some not.

Tim Chi, founder of WeddingWire, the multimillion-dollar global company that burst into being in 2007, believes his company’s success is based on listening. “Early on, we became known for our unlimited vacation policy. It was born out of regularly held focus groups and brainstorming sessions with staff. We wanted everyone to be happy working here, and the best way I knew how to do that was to ask them what would make them happy, and listen to their perspectives.” With a burgeoning business and a global staff that has grown to nearly 1,000 people in 11 years, listening and paying close attention to what their own people are saying is clearly one of the ingredients that makes WeddingWire a winner. 

WeddingWire’s capacity to listen created staff loyalty. Their people felt heard and even respected. Listening also creates trust. Most people know when they are being listened to and when they aren’t. And they are more likely to communicate if they think someone is really listening. 

So, what’s my point? 

You may need to give yourself a little bit of self-evaluation. Even if you think you already know what kind of listener you are, see if you can pay attention to your own behavior in conversation over the next day or two. Are you actually listening to what is being said? Or are you one of the interrupters out there, in actual spoken words and/or thoughts? Are you one of the multi-tasking conversationalists? 

When you are talking to a friend, family member, or colleague, are you planning what you are going to say next? Are you lost in your own thoughts, crafting your own narrative? Are you hearing, but not truly listening to what is being said? 

If so, here’s my advice for getting started on the path to listening, rather than hearing:

  1. Practice just listening. Without planning what you are going to say next. Just listen to what is being said. Notice where your brain wants to go, and if it is hard to give what the person is saying your full, undivided attention.

  2. Don’t interrupt. 

  3. Allow a pause after someone says something and use that time to formulate your response. *Note: If you are conversing with a real talker, one of those people who just fill all time with spoken words, this can be tricky, because they may never stop talking long enough to allow a pause to reflect on what you are going to say.

  4. Slow all of your conversations down. Just a tad (or maybe more if you know they need it).

  5. Model this good listening behavior across your life. 

There are a lot of reasons to work on your listening acumen. We generally aren’t learning when we are talking, and we aren’t growing simply by hearing. The magic happens, as in the above illustration, when we stop using our mouths and start using our ears to listen… with our full brain power. When we stop talking, even stopping our mind chatter, is when we really listen.

The bottom line: Listening is a path to creating healthy, functional, and productive relationships in all aspects of life.


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