Imagine a world where every world leader, parent, teacher, manager, and friend has become an effective listener. What would a world populated with truly effective listeners be like? How would it be different? In this kind of world, conversations would not lead to arguments, discussions would not escalate into altercations, and everyone would thoroughly listen to what a speaker had to say in order to better understand what was said the first time it was spoken. For 15 years I have been bringing the transformative power of effective listening tools to corporations, universities, non-profits, and the helping professions. This column is dedicated to bringing practical and reflective tools and information to you, so that you may become more effective in your listening, and help others do the same.
The foundation of my work on listening began when I reflected on why my grandmother was so successful at building relationships with her family, friends, and people she met. People changed their demeanor in a positive way when they were in conversation with her. The residents in her building always flocked to her apartment to have conversations. I always looked forward to our Saturday afternoons together. Why?
Every Saturday during my adolescence in Boston I would ride the trolley to Grandmother’s six-story apartment house to visit. Together Grammy and I would make breaded chicken wings for dinner, entertain her friends living in the building, and then walk arm in arm on the shady side of the street down to Howard Johnson’s, some ten blocks away, to indulge in my favorite dish, fried clams.
Along the way, Grammy would ask me about my hobbies, home, and school. Her questions were simple, asked to discover what was happening in my life. She listened to every word I spoke, even, it seemed, the unspoken ones.
When we sat down to have our meal, we talked about what was happening in her life and the life of her friends. Since my grandmother was the conversational hub around which the 1440 Beacon Street apartment revolved, there was an ample supply of matters to talk about.
On the walk back, minor incidents became magical. On the other side of the street, which was lined with all kinds of shops, all the proprietors knew who my grandmother was. Clerks at the local grocery store, hardware store, and other shops knew her by name. The hair salon owner, who would usher her into her weekly appointment with a reverence I didn’t understand at first, would wave a greeting.
By the time we got back to her apartment, she had managed to acquaint me with the lives of a number of shopkeepers she knew. I’d be in awe of her memory, her easy way of talking with the people she met, and the way in which she would change their demeanor from one of distance to closeness because of her presence.
During high school years, my conversations with Grammy turned to deeper subjects – social life, news of the day, ethical matters. The walks to Howard Johnson’s became mini-clinics in the art and value of listening. Grammy always would let me know if my response didn’t make sense in light of the question she had asked. Over time, without my realizing it, she had taught me that great conversations require listening without judgment and waiting for the period at the end of the sentence before formulating a reply.
As Grammy continued her habit of speaking with all the people on the street, I found myself listening in a new way, because she had become a role model for me on making the most of my listening skills. Everyone, from her apartment’s elevator man to the stock clerk at the corner grocery store, was special to her. She remembered to ask about the stock clerk’s grandson’s Little League pitching debut, the hoped for promotion of the pharmacist’s wife, the teenager’s top three college choices. She listened with total concentration and sincerity. People loved her because, by listening to them day in and day out without reservation, she showed them how much she cared.
College days and years of having been gainfully employed have made me appreciate even more the lesson my grandmother taught me. I believe that the relationships I enjoy — if they are to have a chance of depth, longevity, or both — begin with my ability to listen.When I looked at successful people in all areas of my life, I began to see the same skill.
Why Listening is Important
We are working and living today in a “knowledge economy.” Personal and professional success leans heavily on how much we can learn about our friends and family, our job, the organization we work in, and ourselves. Applying that knowledge to new situations through our effective listening skills not only helps us to increase our own knowledge but to handle ourselves best in the world around us as well.
What do parents do to bring up well-adjusted children? What keeps sales people at the top of their game? How do longtime CEO’s of organizations stay at the top? How do athletes and coaches enjoy such long careers? How do actors and directors continue to make a multitude of successful films? How do inventors continually come up with new products? How do long-married couples stay married? Using the skill of listening effectively! Though all of them have different job-based talents and skills, these people have one skill in common, the ability to listen effectively.
Each of them understands that listening is not something to do while one is waiting to respond. They have learned to put aside their ego and attend to the person they are listening to. They understand that listening effectively is the key to increased knowledge, increased emotional intelligence, business success, career mobility, and productive and growing relationships.
Listening versus Hearing
Many people believe that hearing and listening are the same. They are not. Hearing is the physical reception of sound. Listening is the attachment of meaning to sound through processing knowledge and experience.
Hearing is passive and automatic. Unless our hearing is blocked by a physical problem or a protective device we are wearing, we hear sounds whether we are trying to receive them or not. Listening, on the other hand, is active and intentional. It involves three functions: hearing, processing the message, and responding to it either through words or body postures. Listening does not occur automatically. It is the result of a conscious choice we make because we can also make a conscious decision not to listen.
Understanding the difference between hearing and listening is an important prerequisite for listening effectively. We often spend only enough time and energy to hear but not listen. Whether in our personal or professional life, we now do more multi-tasking, experience more technology interruptions, and fall victim to far more stress caused by a jam-packed schedule than ever before.
When we listen effectively, we are activating a skill. We understand the content and meaning of what the speaker is saying and are then able to turn what has been said into our own words. We can then show the speaker, through our response, we understand the intent and the content of the message from his or her perspective.
When we listen effectively:
- Cooperation is increased because speakers can see their input is valued
- Better decisions are made because information is coming from multiple source
- Conflict is lessened because misunderstandings and misconceptions are avoided or caught more quickly
- Costly errors are prevented because information and feedback from all stakeholders are listened to
- The speaker’s level of openness increases, allowing for deeper conversations and connection