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Business & Life Mantras, Effective Leadership

Listening: The Underutilized Human Gift

are-you-listeningI am guessing most readers of this blog have encountered at least one person (if not many) in the recent years who has pulled out their mobile device and started typing away in the middle of a dinner or a meeting.  In fact, we are all becoming guilty of this – so much so that it is becoming the norm.  So, I wanted to take a moment to talk about listening.  You might be saying to yourself, “Well, with all of our mobile devices, we are equipped to listen to the people that matter the most via multiple channels (phone, email, tweets, status updates, etc.).”  Fair point, but I counter the argument with the fact that there is a difference between listening (phone) and reading (emails, tweets, status updates, etc.).  Here’s an interesting statistic – making calls is the 5th most frequent use for a smartphone preceded by things like playing games, browsing the internet, using apps, and such (see study details here).  In another study, making calls as a phone usage dimension didn’t even make the list (see study details here ).  So let’s acknowledge the difference between listening and reading and get back to talking about listening. And to set the expectations, I am talking about listening in the context of having a conversation (as opposed to listening while watching TV or listening to the radio).

Why aren’t we listening?

As someone once told me, “Humans were given two ears and one mouth – use them accordingly.”  But why don’t we employ those human devices to that ratio?  In my opinion, it’s because of a few factors – the usual suspects include too much to do too little time to listen to others, and too stressed out to listen to others, but the big culprits include an inflated sense of self and a growing comfort with one perspective.  First, an inflated sense of self promotes behavior where an individual perceives his/her actions, thoughts, and words to be the most important.  Next, there seems to be a phenomenon where individual’s are becoming extremely comfortable with their own, single perspective and information accessibility has armed them with that confidence.  In my humble opinion, both of these psychological effects ultimately lead to an individual talking more, listening less.  If you already haven’t, take a moment to acknowledge that different thoughts, perspectives, and opinions are a gold mine of information.

So, how do we fix this?

Listening is a really, really hard skill to master – it takes practice and anything that takes practice takes time and work. Here’s a framework that may sound simplistic and trivial, but simplicity motivates practice and mastery.  DISCLAIMER: This framework is not intended to solve the previously identified psychological phenomenons but merely lessen their effects in daily conversations.

1. Listen – Next time you are talking to someone, turn your mouth and brain off.  The mouth is self-explanatory but the brain – let me explain.  If someone is talking to you and you are preparing what you are going to say, or thinking about lunch, or thinking about your next meeting, you are not listening.  So, perk up your ears and solicit all the data you can for your brain to process.

2. Engage – A CTO once told me that the simple act of closing my laptop and turning off my cell phone before meeting with him signaled my commitment towards solving his problems.  Prepare and engage your entire body for the conversation.  Listening is demonstrated through your body language, demeanor and actions. So sit tall, lean forward, and disengage all distractions (checking emails, playing Angry Birds, twirling pens between your fingers, etc.).

3. Ask – Ask questions!  The only way you can ask thoughtful questions is by listening to what someone is saying and not make any assumptions (this is another reason your brain should be turned off when listening).  Lot of people say, “I don’t like asking questions cause a) it looks like I’m not listening or b) I just don’t care enough.”  To the first point, asking questions demonstrates your commitment to the conversation and to the second point, then why are spending precious, valuable finite time ‘conversing’ with that person!

4. Devise – Once you’ve listened, engaged, and asked all your questions, you now have gathered all the possible data for your brain to process and devise a thought.  Some are faster at processing than others, but we all must do it to not only show we’ve listened but also to position yourself as someone thoughtful.  For those who are slower at processing, the time spent devising the thought may manifest itself as the “awkward silence” in a conversation.  Here’s a simple fix for that – let the person know you are thinking about what all they said!  That’s it folks!  It’s as simple as that!

With that, I ask you all to LEAD yourself to better listening.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Brandon Smith from my days at Emory whose Communications and Leadership Coaching serve as the foundation for my leadership growth and for frameworks like this.  Check out his insightful website, The Workplace Therapist.  As always, thank you for your time and look forward to your feedback.


2 thoughts on “Listening: The Underutilized Human Gift

  1. Oh you make me so proud! I couldn’t have said it any better… in fact I think I learned more than a few things. Well done my friend!

    Posted by Brandon M. Smith | January 7, 2013, 2:53 pm
  2. Great read. Very insightful material. Keep up the good work.


    Posted by Rohan | February 10, 2013, 1:38 pm

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