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Listening and Hearing What Isn’t Said

| January 25, 2022

by Ron Kraemer

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Ron Kraemer.  He is currently retired.  Ron previously was Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at the University of Notre Dame. Ron may be reached at [email protected].]
When I think about listening, I don’t just think about what we hear, I think about what we learn using all of our observational senses. When we are in one-on-one conversations, attending in-person meetings, or connecting on Zooms, we “listen” with more than our ears. Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”  When we listen intently, we are focused. We not only hear, but we can also observe nonverbal conscious or unconscious facial expressions, gestures, and postures.
In my first post, I wrote that I believed that the three most important leadership attributes are “know thyself”, “listen”, and “find balance”. In this post, I want to share a few thoughts about listening. My intention is not to write about what listening is or the types of listening. Rather, I would like to explore why listening is an incredibly important leadership skill for those who provide University information technology (IT) services.
IT directly and deeply serves virtually every unit and every person in the academy. As we engage others, keep in mind that depending on the relationship an individual or unit has to the service being discussed, each person participating may have very different ideas about the how the IT service affects them. The phrase “where you stand depends on where you sit,” sometimes called Miles’s Law, holds that our individual view of almost every situation is in some ways shaped by our relationship to that situation. This, coupled with the fact that higher education IT service is one of the most complex service areas in a University, makes listening even more important for people in our profession.
Presidents/Chancellors, Provosts, Executive Vice Presidents, Chief Operating Officers, administrators, and faculty members each focus on different things and have myriad incentives, priorities, and proclivities. Provosts and their offices focus on the academic performance of the University. Chief Operating Officers and their units focus on the administrative and financial performance of the University. The Office of the President/Chancellor focuses on the overall performance of the University and many times includes areas like fundraising, athletics, legal affairs, and communications. Administrators will generally key in on their specific areas of responsibilities and most faculty members focus on their area of research, teaching, or department. IT services must navigate all these organizational boundaries.
When we interact with one of these groups or individuals in the group, there is a better chance that there are common understandings, goals, and objectives. As we mix and match people from areas of focus across the University, it is important to have a heightened awareness of the various perspectives in the room. When you are in meetings with people representing different areas, watch closely for clues about what they really care about. If they believe you understand them it will likely help to add value to your relationship with them, but if they believe that you do not understand how a service directly affects them, your relationship may become marginalized.
Everyone wants to believe that you understand their needs, respect their priorities, and want to learn more about their work so you can serve those needs with distinction. How well you listen has a major impact on your job effectiveness and on the quality of your relationships with others. Other leaders will take notice when you listen and when you adapt your style and messaging to others in the academy. After all, they are listening too.
A few things you can do:

  1. Make sure that the right people are invited to the meeting. Not inviting representatives from a unit that may be affected could be taken as a slight. Inviting people that have no relationship to the topic may be perceived as disrespecting their time. If you don’t know, it never hurts to ask during the meeting planning process. A quick email or call will take a minute of two, but once people are in a 45-minute meeting they will generally not just get up and leave.  They will remember if they believed that you wasted their time.
  2. Use examples relevant to all participants.  If you use examples in a meeting, try to include things relevant to all, even if that means multiple examples. If you are doing a data analytics presentation in a meeting attended by members of the Provost Office and the VP of the Budget Office, have both academic and financial examples.
  3. Know the room.  When you are in a meeting, watch how various participants treat one another. Do they appear to be allies or are their interactions a bit confrontational? Be careful not to weigh in too heavily on either side, but if needed follow up with each party to better understand the situation.
  4. Read non-verbals.  For example, does it look like people have questions or comments, but the presenter does not recognize that?   Does a person look confused?  Can you respectfully create a pause in such situations so questions can be asked?
  5. Defer judgment during meetings unless it is critical to come to a decision at the meeting. It might be better to do some follow-up to better understand everyone’s positions before you reach final conclusions.
  6. Focus on meaning.  Sometimes we may use words differently, especially when we come from very different parts of the University.  Listen deeply to make sure we understand the meaning behind the words, and what matters most to other people.
  7. Adapt to the individual.  As you learn more about what each individual cares about on your governance committees, in your project meetings, or at social events, adapt how you engage them to better understand their positions on things that matter to the services IT provides them.

It seems almost ridiculous to even say that listening is one of our most important skills. I think we all know that. I think we all try to be good listeners and I think we all appreciate when we believe that people are listening to what we say. Many of these things seem simple and practical, but don’t underestimate the complexities whenever human behavior is involved. Many times the tiniest things matter and honing our listening skills can help us understand complex people, relationships, and situations.