The art of good listening involves more than our ears

November 25, 2011
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Our human anatomy holds critical secrets that we too often overlook. We were born with two ears, hands, feet, eyes, lungs, two hemispheres that make up our brains — even our hearts have multiple chambers — but we have only one mouth.

We should consider the possibility that either some things are important enough to come in pairs, or that those not having built-in redundancy are meant to be twice as critical. 

Does having two ears and two brain hemispheres mean we should listen and consider what we hear twice as much as we speak? Should we walk away from potential trouble on our two feet before we stand and antagonize someone with our words? Might not our words be more powerful than our works since they come from only one focus point?

What kind of a world would we live in if we would only listen twice as much as we talk? 

Some people listen far too much, and act far too infrequently. A patient listener can be a great addition to any work team, but too many listeners can impede progress. Strong (overbearing?) individuals who speak before listening (or thinking) often view good listeners as being weak.

Without linking action steps that aid in the accomplishment of specific tasks, a good listener can potentially be an impediment to progress. Think how much could be accomplished if we could learn to “listen loudly and speak softly while encouraging others to act boldly.”

It takes courage to listen. In order to listen, one must ask questions. In order to ask, one admits (either actually or implicitly) that he or she does not know. Such an admission is nearly impossible for some people. 

We must accept that gathering information in order to make a decision is not a sign of weakness or of failure. The only failure one can make is deciding on a course of action before accumulating all data, considering all opinions on the matter and intentionally applying/interpreting the information discussed. 

Some may want to enter this “questioning game” by seeking validation to their own great ideas. Perhaps once involved — and finding out that others can validate (as well as clarify, expand and refine a solution) — asking another’s opinion will become easier. 

To listen effectively we must also wait for a response before moving forward with a solution. 

A good listener knows when to encourage conversation. When facilitating a group or work team decision-making session, good listening may involve asking open-ended questions as opposed to giving close-ended solutions, encouraging another to expand on a partially developed thought rather than adding to it, and drawing reserved individuals into the conversation. 

Ground rules for good listening would have to include that the only bad or dumb question is the question not asked. Similarly, the only bad or dumb solution is the one not given — or perhaps the one that runs counter to the thoughts of the group.

As we approach a situation, walking forward into it as most confident people do, our one nose and one mouth join our unique face in meeting the problem head on. Perhaps we should first question but then remain silent so that our ears, as they enter the fray, can hear the answer to the question posed and channel it to our brain for processing. 

It has been said that we retain only a small fraction of what we hear. Think how much less we will retain if we are too busy talking and forming words to pay attention to what is being said by others.

Have you ever heard that “actions speak louder than words”? I’ve seen people say things like “I care,” “I’m interested,” I’m listening,” yet they continue writing or talking on the phone without making eye contact when someone comes into their office. They ask the right questions and wait quietly for the answer with their arms crossed, their foot tapping and a vacant look in their eyes that all scream, “I don’t hear you, nor do I care!” 

While we have two ears with which to listen, our one body is much larger and can make a greater impression on someone trying to speak, should it subconsciously shut them out.

Listening involves more than simply hearing. It requires one to communicate openly and honestly, responding not only to what is being said but also inquiring about what was not fully revealed. It requires us to hear not only what is whispered but also what is being shouted through another’s actions. 

Pay attention to the “tone” of body language when listening. Often we can “hear” more by watching — we were given two eyes as well as two ears, so we can see twice as much as we say — than by listening.

Listening is a complex phenomenon that does not stop with hearing spoken words. We must act on what others say, what they do not say and what we see in order to show others that we are listening, because our words can be loud but our actions often speak louder.

David J. Smith, CAE, is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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