Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Lost Art of Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and knew with certainty that he or she was not listening? Of course, you have.  It is fairly easy to tell when someone is not engaged in a conversation either through lack of eye contact, facial expressions, or the loathed phrase "What did you just say?"  The chances are that the shoe has been on the other foot and you have been guilty of the same behavior.  People know when we are distracted and not actually "present". We must rediscover the lost art of listening.

You would be hard-pressed to find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Communication is vital in accomplishing tasks and getting things done, passing on important information, acquiring information, developing a shared vision, reaching decisions through consensus, building relationships, and moving people to embrace change. For many people, communication is viewed through a lens that focuses on why and how information or targeted messages are delivered.  However, the most effective communicators are those people who listen intently.

By improving our listening skills, we can become better communicators in our respective positions while simultaneously building better relationships with students, colleagues, and other stakeholders.  Below are some solid tips from Ed Brodow that can help you become a better listener:

  • Develop the desire to listen. You must accept the fact that listening to others is your strongest weapon. Given the opportunity, the other person will tell you everything you need to know. If this doesn't create desire, I don't know what will.
  • Always let the other person do most of the talking. This is a simple matter of mathematics. I suggest a 70/30 rule. You listen 70% of the time and you talk 30% of the time.
  • Don't interrupt.  There is always the temptation to interrupt so you can tell the other person something you think is vitally important. It isn't, so don't. When you are about to speak, ask yourself if it is really necessary.
  • Learn active listening.  It's not enough that you're listening to someone - you want to be sure that they know you're listening. Active listening is the art of communicating to the other person that you're hearing their every word.
  • Ask for clarification if needed.  This will clear up any misunderstanding you have.
  • Get used to 'listening' for nonverbal messages - body language.  The other person may be communicating with you via body language. You need to decode the message.
  • Ask a question...then shut up.  This is a foolproof way to listen. Think of yourself as an interviewer - Barbara Walters! She listens and questions - so should you.

In addition to the great tips above, I would add that we must work harder to let other people know that we are actually listening.  The use of eye contact and facial expressions followed up by either additional questions or a synthesis of what was heard conveys to others that you are actually present. If the conversation is happening over the phone or through a digital medium, consider following up with a short summary as to what you heard. The final tip is probably the most important.  The best way to illustrate that you have really listened is to take action in some way so that the other person, or people, know that they were actually heard. The action could be moving an idea forward or explaining your decision to go in another direction.  There are always the times when people just want to vent and be listened to. In these cases, the most important thing you can do is show you care. 

In the digital age, we are all trying so hard to be heard, but are we making the time to listen and reflect?  As I discussed at length in Digital Leadership, social media ushered in a new era of communication and collaboration.  Traditional hurdles such as time, distance, and money have been overcome as more and more tools are available that allow people to share resources, ideas, opinions, and feedback.  For all of us who routinely leverage social media for these purposes, we are a vibrant part of a globally connected community committed to improving professional practice as well as our own lives.  Being able to share information and ideas like never before is exhilarating, but are we taking the time to really listen to what others are sharing? 

The art of listening can be extended to the social media space.  This applies to all of us and I know personally it is an area that I can improve upon.  Consider engaging others in conversations about their ideas and questions by commenting on blog posts or responding to updates on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.  This means more to people than you will ever know, especially if that person doesn't have a large social media following.  It shows that you care and are actually listening in digital spaces. If someone reaches out to you in this space with a question or comment, take the time to reply back. 

As Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Make improved listening a habit to move more ideas forward and build positive relationships in the process. 


  1. Yes - working hard to let people know we are listening is emotional labour to which no-one is exempt.

  2. Love the idea behind this article. We teach the hard curriculum but complementing it with soft skills, i.e. being good listeners, will only enhance their educational experience.

  3. Agreed. Check out this Ted Talk...