Effective Listening for Leaders and for Life

Al GormanCoaching, Managing 1 Comment

Do we really listen?

How are effective, or ineffective, listening skills affecting your organization, the people who are employed by the organization and the results they deliver? Expanded further how are your listening skills affecting your life?

Let’s start with the premise that we really don’t listen at all. Or, as a minimum at best we listen to what we have to say about what everyone else has to say. Herein lies a huge problem for managerial leaders, and for interaction in any social setting. We are driven by that little voice that appears compelled to take over a presence in every interaction and this little voice (we’ll call it ‘it’) interferes with effective communication. In most every organization communication is distinguished as an impediment to effectiveness, yet what are we doing to resolve ineffective communication?

What we think inside of shapes what we hear! This is to say that the sum of our life experiences and all that we already know forms the points of reference for everything else that we encounter. Each of us only has our own experience to think from and somewhere intertwined in the core of ineffective lsitening is the innate human desire to either be right, or look good, or both.

‘It’ is designed for survival and central to survival is the desire to be right and look good. ‘It’ perceives imminent risk in most every interaction and each conversation. ‘It’ serves to judge and ‘it’ not only judges the quality and relevance of what ‘it’ hears but also judges the individual communicating his or her thoughts. In your very next conversation, or even in the conversation you are having with yourself as you read this article listen for your own listening. If you are human by now you’ve already agreed or disagreed with the assertions made thus far. Your little voice has judged the quality of what is being communicated within this text.

At an NTL workshop several years back I had defined my own conclusion that I was not a very good listener and I was committed to improving my listening skills as an outcome within the workshop. The session was one that was designed to build awareness within a “T’ Group. This is the very group dynamics theory that was developed by Kurt Lewin and others, that Elliott Jaques was a part of at Tavistock and which he subsequently departed from. Jaques was by no means a supporter of group dynamics and although in many respects I share his views, prefering to focus on behaviours as a correlate of functional or dysfunctional systems, we will need to acknowledge that the leadership behaviours that are applied to these managerial systems are relevant. Nevertheless, I encountered NTL before I came upon RO and SST and at this particular workshop that was focused on building awareness of self and others a participant fed back to me that she thought I was a good listener although she wondered at times whether I was listening to understand or was I simply listening to respond. In itself a good observation however what was I to do with it? Of course I was listening to respond for like most every human being I have this burning desire to affirm my own existence in the world, to present myself as someone who really knows and understands the issues and someone who derives satisfaction in doing a great job and looking good. And, it is all a serious impediment to effective communication.

Evidently, we are in many respects driven to what is next in life. We need to get on with creating the future, even if it represents our next disappointment in life. What’s next? Who’s next? Where do I need to be next? Life becomes a race to the next destination. Eckhart Tolle’s publication “The Power of Now” defines that as human beings we are consumed in carrying all of our past disappointments into the present so that we can experience the past over and over again. And, if this is not enough we carry forward the anxieties and tribulations of all those events that have not yet occurred, from the future, so we can encumber our effectiveness in living life in the here and now with the pain, or pleasure, of yesterday and the trials of tomorrow; both diversions from now and it is only the here and now that exists. I asked a colleague several months ago why he wasn’t attending some social events that were attended by professionals within his particular discipline. His response was that he was tired of having conversations with people who were forever glancing over his shoulder to see who might be arriving next that the second party in the conversation would need to rush off to because the new arrival might have more to offer his or her career. It sounds absurd of course but how many people are driven to the next individual, or the next conversation, for personal benefit and how does this impact the conversation, one’s presence in the conversation, and ability to listen now?

Alas, what can be done?

A good start is to listen for your own listening. When we gather an awareness of ‘it’ we can begin to distinguish the impact ‘it’ is having on our listening and interactive skills.

Acknowledge ‘it’. We might even declare overtly in the conversation that in order to establish a presence for listening we need to share the particular thought that is over-riding the ability to listen effectively.

Listen for your judgmental voice – ‘it’. Do you hear that familiar “yes, but” or the “right and wrong” or “I agree or disagree” or “this shouldn’t be happening” or “the flaw in the argument is…..”. Attempt to listen beyond the judgment. Acknowledge ‘it’ without feeling compelled to respond – listen to understand and not to respond.

Listen for commitment and acknowledgement by the individual who is speaking. The other party is speaking with you because they really believe you are related to the issue and that they, or you, or both of you can have an impact. Appreciate that it may be their ‘it’ that is in the driver’s seat yet avoid the temptation to judge that this is the problem.

Create space for the speaker. As soon as we counter we begin confining and constricting the space. It is in this space and the void that exists that something powerful can be created. No space – no room for anything new or different!

And, acknowledge that you are human. ‘It’ will jump in and when it does if you are observant you can acknowledge that, as my Irish colleagues say, “you’ve lost the run of yourself”.

Perhaps most important is practice listening. We all appear to have no difficulty practicing talking and as the old adage goes we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason, yet we usually hear this being declared by someone who is more interested in speaking than listening. A wise gentleman indicated to me recently, no doubt when I was engaged in speech to the detriment of listening that “a wise man doesn’t feel the compelling need to say any more than is necessary and that there is more to be gained listening than speaking”.

Having now said all this perhaps I’ve said enough!

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