The Power of Listening

By Margaret Enloe, JD, PCC

A young man walks through Central Park wearing a t-shirt. It says in bold black letters, “WARNING, I’m not listening.”  A touch edgy? Yes. A sign of the times? Maybe. Either way, it may work for a young man, but it won’t for leaders — the power of listening cannot be underestimated.

Listening is a top leadership skill. Not hearing, but listening genuinely. As Stephen Covey points out in his oft-cited book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “comparatively few people have had any training in listening at all.” Moreover, as people rise in the ranks of an organization, they tend to do more talking and less listening. Perhaps that’s why Habit 5 in Covey’s book is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It’s all about paying attention and showing you actually care about what someone is telling you. 

How many of you, when growing up, played the “telephone game”? It was fascinating and fun because the last person in the chain would invariably say something totally different than the first person. Often something ridiculously different! 

When we communicate at work, we’re rarely playing a game. In fact, what we communicate and how we communicate is usually important. But, many people are poor listeners. In fact, people spend most of their listening time thinking about what they want to say; they are either speaking or preparing to speak!

One of the best listeners was a leader we all know — Abraham Lincoln. When he was President, he had to filter out a lot of distractions including a civil war that was tearing this country apart. Nonetheless, and as captured in the opening scene of Lincoln, the 2012 movie by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln was known to be a good listener, someone who was interested in what the other person was saying, was curious, and asked questions. We are all the better for it.

We don’t have to block out a civil war, but there are still many things that distract us from listening, let alone listening well. Which of these get in your way?:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Size
  • Rank in the organization
  • Invasions of body space
  • Foreign accents
  • Foul language 
  • Different aims
  • Aggressiveness 
  • Timidity
  • Bad grammar 
  • Poor enunciation
  • Poor table manners 
  • Inappropriate clothing
  • Anxiety
  • Boredom
  • Electronic devices of all kinds 

And, as mentioned above, a key barrier to good listening is the fact that people like to think about what matters to them and what they will say! In that connection, how many times have you found yourself telling someone a story and they jump in and tell you their story. It’s often a game of one upsmanship. Within the next 24 hours, if you pay attention, you will likely do this to someone or someone will do it to you. 

Not surprisingly, the ability to listen gets sorely tested in environments where there is tension or when a person with more seniority is interacting with someone of less seniority. If a more junior colleague asks you a question or makes a comment, do you allow them to finish before popping in with your thoughts? Do you look at them while they speak, interrupt them, or alternatively, encourage them to tell you more or ask a question?  

In terms of building good leadership skills, two wonderful things happen when you pull in the reigns and allow a person with less seniority to speak:

1) you increase your ability to listen and 

2) you open space for those with less experience to gain confidence in themselves and their ability to communicate. 

Build Your Power of Listening

Here is my proposition — ask a trusted colleague whether you’re a good listener. Ask for honest feedback. You may have a reputation for not listening or interrupting frequently and no one is telling you! Becoming self-aware is the first step in improving your skills.

And, no matter how good a listener you think you are, you can practice with a friend or colleague: can you listen to them without interruption for a full two minutes? If it’s hard, practice some more. Listening skills are one of the most important, yet underdeveloped, skills of leaders at all levels. 

If interested in more about the power of listening, read Arden Coaching’s “Leadership: Developing Level Three Listening Skills.” And you might watch Lincoln, or read about Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit or an article called You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, by Kate Murphy.

To learn more about the power of listening and developing your leadership skills, contact Maragret for a consultation.