Skip to main content

Listen!  Listen!!

| October 24, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Are you listening?

Hearing and listening.  We hear when sound waves reach our ears and are converted into neural signals by the inner ear.  We choose to listen when we intentionally let those neural signals impact us.  This is why we can sit in a busy place totally immersed in our reading or in a conversation with another person and be completely oblivious of what is taking place immediately around us. 
Listening is key to communication.  We listen to the sounds around us;  to presentations at a conference or in a class;  we engage in conversations in our team meetings;  and, we listen as we talk with each other.  Genevieve Conti, user experience design strategist at, says that listening is the unsung hero of communication.  And, I agree.
However, listening is much harder than we think for several reasons.  For example, Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center says that we are often consumed with ourselves.  “It’s really hard to walk into a conversation without my agenda being written on my forehead and your agenda written on yours.”  
And, when you approach a conversation thinking only of your own agenda, your goal is to maneuver and manipulate the conversation, and to come out better than the other person.  Says Grergersen,  “I might influence you to do, buy, or act, but the probability that I get any surprising new data is close to zero.  I’m thinking that the conversation is about me, or its about me controlling you.  Neither are great conversation starters.” 
Listening is also difficult because we are able to think faster than we speak, about 450 words per minute when listening to around 150 words when we speak.  Steven Covey suggests that we, too often, do one or more of four things during this gap: 
1.  We evaluate – we ask whether we agree or disagree with the speaker?
2.  We mentally probe – we ask ourselves questions from our own frame of reference.
3.  We advise ­– we formulate our counsel, advice, and solutions to the issues we hear.
4.  We interpret – we ask what are the motives based on our experiences.
Instead, why not use the gap as a time to review and summarize the main points of what we’ve heard.  When you do this, you can restate the points that were made and ask whether you’ve understood them:  “What I hear you saying is…” or “When you said that, did you mean…?”
Given that we aren’t really that great at listening, how might we become better, be able to step back from our desire to get our point across and really listen to what the other person is saying?  Here are some of the things that we each might do:
1.  Be fully present and aware.  Marie-Claire Dean, a design manager at Atlassian Software, suggests that you practice mindfulness daily as a way to help develop practices that support keeping your mind from wandering, from losing concentration, from having a conversation with yourself, etc. in order to enhance your listening capabilities.
2.  Listen with attentiveness and to comprehend.  What is it that the speaker is actually saying, focus to understand rather than to respond.  When you are focused on your response, you filter what is being said through your frame of reference and you decide what the speaker means before he or she has finished talking.  Focus instead on what is actually being said.
3.  Don’t interrupt.  Wait for the right moment to respond.  Just listen.  Just be there for the person.  Actually wait until the person speaking is done talking before you respond.  Don’t rehearse your answer while the person is speaking.  When we begin working on a reply before the speaker is finished, we lose both the complete information being presented as well as an understanding of the kind of emotion present in the speaker’s delivery.  When you interrupt, you are saying to the world “I’m more important than you.”
4.  You ask great questions.  Be curious.  Research has shown that great listeners ask questions that promote insight and discovery.  Asking good questions demonstrates that you were listening and that you are interested in developing your understanding around what was said as well as building on the ideas.  Both demonstrate your interest in learning more about the subject.
5.  You pay attention to more than just the words being said.  How were they said?  Was the speaker energized?  Not interested in what he or she was doing?  And, be aware of what your own face is saying.  In face-to-face conversations, 80% of the communication comes from the tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions that transmit all elements of the communication as a whole. 
6.  Pay attention to your “listen/talk” ratio.  Strive to a 2:1 ration of listening to talking.  The more you talk the less you hear and learn. 
7.  Don’t take word-for-word notes.  It takes significant mental energy to capture verbatim what is being said.  You can’t capture everything and at the same time be a truly engaged listener.  If you try to type notes as you listen, you may be an even worse listener.  Good listeners forego taking detailed notes so that they can be more engaged.  They take shorter notes that will aid their recall of the conversation.
8.  You make people feel that they actually have been heard.  You want the speaker in your conversation to feel that you are listening, that at that moment he or she is the most important person in the room for you.  Make eye contact with him or her (but don’t stare).  People who feel that you are really listening to them are more likely to engage in future interactions with you. 
9.  Follow up on what matters.  Good listeners make a point to follow up on the key issues.  You lose credibility if you promise to follow up on an issue from the conversation and don’t.  It is worth the extra effort to make a note, do the work, can circle back.
Being known as a great listener increases your stature as a professional and strengthens your relationships with others.  Research has shown that having good listening skills makes us better collaborators.  Better listening skills also enable us to be a better conversationalist, a better manager, better at understanding client needs, and better at negotiating.   These skills are also valuable in advancing our careers.  And also, being a great listener will make others enjoy being around you and help you learn from them. 
I’m sure that you, like me, can find one or more things on this list that we need to work on.  Why don’t you take some time to do some work on at least one of these practices.  
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Genevieve Conti, How to Master the Art of blog, December 22016.
Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, 2004.
James Bruce, Tuesday Reading – Listening, MOR Associates, July 2016.  
Jack Zenger, Joseph Folkman, What Great Listeners Actually Do, Harvard Business Review, July 2016. 
Stephanie Vozza, 6 Ways To Become A Better Listener, Fast Company, March 2017.