Hearing and listening are indeed closely related but they are not interchangeable words for the same experience. One may hear a great many things without truly listening at all. To listen is to not just hear; but to receive, pause, internalize, reflect and process. It’s ironic that so many people, wherever you may travel will lament that they just want to be heard. The proof? At some point in a conversation people will say as they become increasingly frustrated, “You aren’t listening; you don’t understand.” There’s this co-relation between power and listening; the less we have, the less we feel listened to.
When we are really listened to; when we feel that the person we are in conversation with is tuned in and gives us their full attention, we also feel that we’ve got their respect. I’m sure you’ve had conversations with people where you didn’t feel listened to, where you didn’t feel heard at all. When you paused for a breath the other person spoke immediately, or worse yet, you never even finished speaking before the other person rode over your words with their own. How did you feel?
And we are all guilty of not listening; all of us. Some of us do listen better than others at times, but no one can honestly claim that they listen effectively at all times, in all situations, to all people. Ask your teenage children if you’re a good listener.
Not being heard is one of our great frustrations though isn’t it? We get annoyed that Politicians hold conferences, speak their minds and then refuse to take questions, leaving those in the audience frustrated at not being heard. Phone a number of businesses these days and you become immediately frustrated with the automated answering services which ironically tell YOU to listen first to all the choices you’ve got and push the corresponding number on your phone. Why do we have to listen when we’re the ones phoning?
One of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to build a workplace culture where the customers or clients are not heard; where the end users are not listened to and their feedback ignored.
The surprising thing is that for many people, just being listened to is enough. Not everyone wants or quite frankly, needs someone else to come up with the solution to their problems. People are pretty good at finding their own solutions given support. What many people just want is to feel they have someone’s ear.
I have found that when someone feels they are being listened to, they eventually get past the surface stuff; they come to the point where they go deep. Whether this takes 10 minutes or many conversations later, when a person feels truly listened to, their trust in the person listening increases which allows them the space to share what is of most importance and significance to them. This is the best compliment a speaker can give a listener.
Now in a conversation, there’s a mutual obligation between speaker and listener. The speaker has an obligation too. It’s equally important when communicating that we choose to speak in words and phrases our listeners comprehend. I’m not just saying in the same dialect, but rather in the words they understand. Talking is one thing, but checking to make sure the listener has really heard us is important. This must be done using tact of course, but if not done properly, a person will talk on and on believing they’ve communicated effectively only to find out later they were never truly listened to. Equally, the listener should be checking in to make sure what they are hearing is in fact what the other person is communicating.
Now this sounds pretty elementary; communicating 101. However, the number of people who feel they aren’t being heard, aren’t being listened to, aren’t being understood is quite high. So if communicating is so easy and elementary, why are we collectively doing such a poor job of it?
Now look at any number of job postings these days and you’ll perhaps see that employers are looking for applicants that have great communication skills. They go on to mention that an applicant must be able to, ”communicate both orally and in writing”. Not as often will they say an applicant must be able to, “listen effectively.” The one exception is where the role involves conflict resolution and problem solving. Even then, the thrust is to listen to people just enough to understand their problem and then fix it. Time after all is money. Hence just listen long enough to resolve the problem and then move on to the next person with a problem.
With so few people really developing their listening skills, it would seem like there is an opportunity here. Have you someone in your workplace that seems to be a good listener? That one person who when they say, “How are you?” everyday really seems to be interested in your answer? That person I’m betting is someone you value and appreciate.
Listening and not just hearing sound is a skill like any other that you can choose to develop or not. Try if you will today; right now if the situation presents itself, to give someone your undivided attention. Turn and look at them and really listen. Resist the urge to speak and process what they’ve said. Check your understanding to make sure you heard them correctly.