Friday, May 29, 2009

Too Smart to Listen?

How can something so easy be so hard? This world is filled with people longing to be heard, but there are very few willing or able to truly listen. Shut mouth, open ears. Is that really so difficult? Obviously yes.

We've all heard of the manifold benefits of listening. It is the key that unlocks the deeper dimensions of human interaction. When we really listen, it indicates we care. That is fundamental to creating trust. Listening enables understanding, empathy, intimacy. It completes the communication process that connects people to people. It builds and strengthens relationships.

In the business world, listening positions us to better serve our customers. It illuminates their needs, concerns, priorities, and aspirations. It shapes our value proposition. It informs our strategy, validates our performance, guides our work processes. Great listening skills define effective leaders. Great workplaces arise in companies that listen to their employees.

We know this. So why is it so hard to do? Why are all the benefits of better listening just beyond our reach? Most of us have all the necessary equipment (ears); we just can't seem to turn it on. Or turn up the volume. There's something blocking us. It's us.

Ego and expertise combine to erect a formidable barrier to listening. The first step to becoming a better listener is to simply care what the other person has to say. Sounds easy, but self-interest gets in the way. It's been noted that most folks engage in two primary activities when in conversation: (1) talking and (2) thinking about what they're going to say next. (And just enough listening to formulate the next point they want to make.) Ouch! Guilty as charged.

Having something to say is also a problem. Most of us "experts" are just bursting to share what we know. Years ago I sold environmental services. Having come from the civil engineering field, I had limited knowledge of what I was selling. So I learned to ask good questions and listen carefully. Given the success I had, I surmised that I had developed into an effective listener.

Not so. If my interactions at home weren't evidence enough, I started my own consulting practice. Now I was selling my expertise, not someone else's. I had a wealth of exerience and collected insights to share. Obviously, I wanted to be perceived as being smart. So I opened my mouth--too much, in my opinion. And my previously strong listening skills were suddenly missing in action.

Ego and expertise; do you have these by chance? So how's your listening?

Something I've noticed over the years: Most of the wisest people I've ever met were good listeners. Their wisdom was evident in the questions they asked, and their measured responses. They didn't need to say much to show how much they knew. Because they listened so well, their comments tended to be right on the mark. Delivered with pinpoint, rifle-shot accuracy, not the usual shotgun dispersion of facts and opinions. They connected with their target audience because they knew them so well, and seemed to genuinely care about them. They listened.

Doesn't that sound like the profile of a great consultant, engineer, architect, manager, or business developer? Shut mouth, open ears. Ask good questions, then really listen. Shouldn't be that hard, but it is for most of us.

Maybe we need some practice. Let me suggest an exercise, one that I too seldom draw upon. In your next conversation, try to center your focus on the other party. I mean, really focus on that person. Make listening, not talking, the priority. Don't let your mind wander to what you'd like to say, or what you think about what is being said. Just listen. Take your time, don't rush to fill any dead air, formulate questions with some forethought.

The goal is to develop your capacity for extrospection. That's defined as a "habitual interest in or examination of matters outside oneself." Sure, there is intrinsic value in putting others before self. But there are also substantial personal and professional rewards for becoming a great listener, for being extrospective. Considering the payoffs for all parties, it's just plain smart.

1 comment:

John Poole said...

I am in complete agreement. The problem however is that if you don't "pipe in" in an effort to make other people think you're smart, they may in fact think you a dumb. It's a shame that our world has come to this, but I've been in too many meeting where people are just trying to prove themselves and leave others in the dust. It's a tough game.