Just How Does One Listen?

| October 29, 2019

by Jim Bruce

“Humble listening” is among the top four characteristics of leader.1  —  Jeff Immelt, Former Chairman and CEO, GE.
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”2,3     —   Henry Ford.
“To be able to motivate and inspire others, you need to learn how to listen in both individual meetings and at the group level.4  —   Christine Riordan, President, Adelphi University.
Many times, over the course of a MOR Leaders Program, participants are reminded that relationships are the currency of the realm. If that’s so, then listening, truly listening, is one of the key facilitators required to develop and have meaningful, productive relationships. Indeed, listening is a skill that we use for much of every day. It is not only key to building relationships but also key to every other aspect of leadership. Without skill at listening, you simply cannot connect and lead effectively.  
So then, how do I listen? To listen effectively, you need to treat listening as a discipline and become proficient in its practice. To be proficient, you must work at developing and enhancing your listening skills including seeking feedback on your listening and incorporating that feedback in your practice.
Note that I have used the word “listen,” not the word “hearing.” Hearing is simply the process of detecting sounds and becoming aware that “something” is there, whereas listening is the conscious processing of what we hear. Roland Barthes, a French researcher in the mid-1900s said, “Hearing is always occurring, most of the time subconsciously. In contrast, listening is the interpretative action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves.”5 But, it is even more than just hearing the sound waves, the words. Listening requires using and managing all of your senses, being aware of the speaker’s words as well as his or her facial expressions, gestures and body language, feelings, etc. And, at the same time we need to be aware of our non-verbal responses, as well.
As we go through our day, we listen in many different settings. Sometimes it is in a one-on-one setting, other times it’s in a group meeting, and sometimes you are a participant or speaker in a larger group setting, or it might even be an informal conversation as you walk down a hallway or along a path outside. The good news is that the approaches you use to listen in each situation are generally the same. My universal, overly-comprehensive checklist for listening may be helpful to you:

  1. Prepare. Never participate in a scheduled meeting without having prepared for it. And, this also applies for those “planned” accidental encounters that you hope to manage in the moments before a meeting or a chance interaction as you are on the way to a meeting, etc. Include this planning time on your daily calendar.
  2. Your role is to listen, so stop talking. You cannot talk and listen at the same time. If your tendency is to talk too much, be mindful of that and actively work to reduce how much you talk during meetings you have.
  3. Focus. To focus, you need to eliminate distractions. If one-on-one in your office, don’t sit at your desk where you will be easily distracted by your monitor and the papers that are there. Put away and mute your mobile device. This is your time to focus all of your senses on your conversational partner. If you are in a public space, keep your eyes focused on your conversational partner (and not roaming around) and indicate to anyone who is trying to interrupt to get your attention, that you’ll catch up with them later. If in a larger setting, again focus on the speaker. Put away your mobile device and any materials not necessary for the work at hand.
  4. Demonstrate your interest in what’s being said – through looking at the person, your facial expressions, and your body language. Not showing interest shows disrespect to the speaker and does not set a good example.
  5. Listen for ideas, not just the facts. Keep an open mind, not assuming what will be said
    • What is it?
    • Why should I care?
    • Why is it important to me?
    • What should I do?
  6. Take simple notes, words and phrases, to help you focus and to remind you of the key points. Note action items as they come to mind. (Trying to write everything down actually keeps you from listening.) Especially in one-on-ones and smaller group meetings, assure the speaker that he or she has been heard by summarizing what you have heard before you ask questions. Acknowledging another’s thoughts and feelings does not mean you agree. It simply is saying you heard, and you understand.
  7. Pay close attention to your emotional filters. Don’t turn off what you do not want to hear. And, don’t accept everything, without question, that you want to hear. Too often our emotions will interfere with our listening and we will end up with incomplete information.
  8. Be patient, don’t interrupt, hear the speaker out. Let them have their point-of-view.
  9. Ask lots of questions (if appropriate to the situation) and as you do, reflect back on what was actually said about that point.                                                                               
  10. Be slow to disagree, critique, or argue in public, or in private, in a disrespectful way.
  11. If in the course of a meeting you have agreed to take some action, be sure to do that as soon as possible. Your integrity takes a hit if you don’t.

Listening is among the most important things we do each day and every day. The ability to extract information from a conversation or a presentation is one of a leader’s most important tools. Today’s Tuesday Reading will help you step up these skills. I trust that you’ll use this opportunity as you continue your leadership journey.
Make this a great week for your team and for you.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Quoted in Ram Charan, The Discipline of Listening, Harvard Business Review, June 2016.
  2. Quoted in Goodreads Quotes, here.
  3. Christine Riordan, Three Ways Leaders Can Listen with More Empathy, Harvard Business Review, January 2014.
  4. Sara Stibitz, How to Really Listen to Your Employees, Harvard Business Review, January 2015.
  5. Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Form: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, Reprint Edition ISBN-13: 978-0520072381.

Other Readings of Interest:

  1. Wikipedia, Active Listening.
  2. Valeria Maltoni, How to Listen for Change, Conversation Agent (undated).

Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading for March 30, 2015.





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