One of the most underrated skills as a leader, and indeed in business in general, is listening. Actually listening.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t do it very well. We may think that we do. We may even retain information that was said, but we aren’t really listening. At best, most of us are simply waiting for our turn to speak – partially because in this society, being heard is more valued than listening to others.
The type of not listening takes a number of forms.
On the far end of the spectrum is where we actively ignore people. We aren’t listening and we make our disinterest in what the other person is saying clear.
Then you have the situations where we pretend to listen, but aren’t retaining any information that the other person is saying. If someone’s doing this, you can sometimes see their eyes glaze over, or they might be pretending to take notes on their laptop, but they’re actually doing other things. This is commonly seen during meetings though it also happens in other situations.
Farther down the spectrum is where we retain information from what the other person is saying, but we still aren’t actually listening.
Some people will argue that this is listening, but they’d be wrong. It’s a necessary part of listening, but it isn’t listening.
Retaining information means that you’ve heard someone. That’s not the same thing.
You haven’t listened until the other person feels like you have.
That’s it. That’s the secret.
Your own perception has nothing to do with it. Whether or not you’ve listened depends entirely on the perception of the person you’re listening to.
One of the more straightforward ways to arrive at a place where the other person feels heard is to be an active listener. Ask questions. Summarize in your own words what you think they’re trying to convey. Be involved in the conversation instead of just passively sitting there.
It’s a display of empathy and interest.
If you’re actively involved in the conversation (instead of just waiting for your turn to speak or talking over someone), they’re much more likely to feel heard. This not only makes most people more positively disposed toward you, it often leads to them revealing information that they may not intend to.
In business, both of these things can be absolutely invaluable. Having them think well of you makes them more likely to cooperate with you. Getting unintended pieces of information can help you see the bigger picture or even give you an edge in negotiations.
Even if we aren’t taught it explicitly, the implicit lesson that we learn as we grow up is that the person speaking is the one who has the power because other people stop what they’re doing and pay attention to the one speaking. How many times as a kid did you hear some variation of the admonition “I’m SPEAKING” come out of the mouth of one of your teachers or other authority figures. They’re just leaving the “that means I’m more important than you” part of the sentence unsaid.
And that’s what a lot of us internalize as we grow up. (Though you’ll notice that the same people who make the demand of “I’m SPEAKING” often don’t care about listening when anyone else speaks. This isn’t a sign of strength and authority. It’s actually a sign of weakness and fear.)
The truth is that the person who’s listening can often gain even more power because they’re able to build relationships, see the larger picture, and negotiate more effectively.
As a bonus, the applications of listening go beyond business and into most aspects of our lives where they involve other people.
Isn’t that reason enough to stop hearing and start listening?