Archive for May, 2009

Listening versus Hearing in Leadership and Life

“I just don’t understand it,” said Leo in response to getting severely dinged by his subordinates on his 360 Degree feedback report. “ I hear every damn word they say.  Over the last weekend, for example, I thought about what my staff had said in Friday’s meeting, and on Monday I put many of those things into action.  How can they possibly say I don’t listen?”

Leo was upset, angry, and insulted from this feedback.  In our executive coaching session it became clear that Leo was confusing hearing with active listening.  There is a world of difference between these two modalities. It only takes ears to hear but active listening requires hearing, thinking, reacting, and communicating responsively.  Merely hearing what another is saying provides no indication of whether you got the communications, understood the intent, agreed or disagreed, valued it, or disregarded it completely.

Leo was a hearer, not a listener.  His staff, therefore, had no idea of what he was doing with their input, if anything.  As far as they were concerned, they might as well be talking to a blank wall.  Leo carefully digested their input, but without any visible response.  The result was that Leo’s staff felt unappreciated and disinclined to bother with a seemingly futile effort to share their best thinking, good ideas, or problem solving input.

In her book Listening: The Forgotten Skill, (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1995) Madelyn Burely-Allen identifies the following three levels of listening:

  1. Listening non-judgmentally with understanding to the intent and feelings, paying attention to the speaker’s total communication, actively processing and responding.
  2. Hearing words but making minimal effort to understand the speaker’s intent, appearing to listen intently when in fact you’re only slightly concentrating.
  3. Listening in spurts, hearing more than listening; being passive and judgmental.

At which level do you think Leo was operating?  Which level do you function in most frequently?  Are you inclined to listen at one level with certain individuals and another with others?  What do you see as the result of your current listening competency in your work and life?

Active listening at Level 1 can produce huge benefits personally and professionally.  It’s well known, for example, that top leaders are great listeners.  Leading-edge organizations realize they must become “learning organizations” through active listening to remain viable in today’s global economy.  Poor listening lies at the heart of most conflicts and relationship problems.

Level 1 listening is one of life’s greatest gifts.  When you know you’re truly being listened to you think more deeply, become more aware of what you’re saying and feel valued as an intelligent and worthwhile person.  In listening to others, you encourage them to become more deeply aware of what they are saying and thinking and provide a golden opportunity for mutual learning.  To be more effective in your life, work, and learning, become a powerful listener — it’s a win-win investment for you and others, and it’s free!

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