Sunday, September 4, 2011

Listening is hard work, requiring discipline and practice

“You need to listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Hearing is natural. Listening is hard work.” Kyle Minor

A MAN named Kevin feared that his wife wasn't hearing and wanted to get her a hearing aid. So he sought the family doctor for advice. The doctor advised him, “when your wife is in the kitchen, stand a few metres behind her and ask her a question. If she doesn't respond keep moving closer until she hears you.”

That evening when his wife was in the kitchen cooking dinner and he asks, “Honey, what's for dinner?” Hearing no response, he moves closer to the kitchen and repeats, “Honey, what's for dinner?” Hearing no response from his bride, he moves into the dining room and once again asks, “Honey, what's for dinner?”

Again hearing no response, he walks to the kitchen door and asks again, “what's for dinner?” Hearing no response, the now frustrated husband walks directly behind her and says, “Honey, what's for dinner? To which she turns with a smile on her face, and speaks into his ears, “Kevin, for the FIFTH time, nasi goreng!”

Many business leaders are like Kevin. We constantly believe that our employees are not able to listen to us. And we try to hammer the message across numerous times through multiple means. But the real issue may not be them butus. Many leaders have listening issues but like Kevin, don't realise they are a problem.

If you were asked “Who taught you how to speak, read, and write?” you'd probably be able to list teachers who helped you develop those communication skills. But what if the question was: “Who taught you how to listen?”

For most people, the answer would be “no one.” That's truly ironic as listening is the part of communication we engage in the most (40% listening, 35% speaking, 16% reading, 9% writing). Yet, we typically receive the least training for it, and are least proficient at it.

In his new book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith writes, “80% of our success in learning from other people is based upon how well we listen.” Listening is a skill that underlies all leadership skills. Listening is the key to relationships, decision making and problem solving. Leaders spend half of their communication time listening, yet in countless studies, poor listening is identified repeatedly as the most common deficiency amongst leaders.

So, why do we pay so little attention to listening? Firstly we take it for granted since we hear well, so we listen well too. We fail to understand that hearing is the mechanical function of receiving sounds while listening is an interpretive function translating those sounds into meaning.

Secondly, most view listening as a passive activity. Society today condemns passivity as weak, believing today's fast-paced, global world requires action-based activity. What we fail to understand is that effective listening is an active process that requires skill, discipline, and is hard work. Our obsession with action ignores the importance of listening first, much to our peril.

Goldsmith believes listening is the one skill that separates the great from the rest. Goldsmith illustrates that when we're on a date, we focus intently on what the other person says. Similarly, when talking to our boss or presenting to a client. The difference, Goldsmith says, is that great leaders maintain that level of focus and intense listening all the time. The great Peter Drucker believed listening to your staff was the most important thing that a boss could do.

The business of listening

Soon after Howard Schultz retired as CEO, Starbucks fortunes plummeted. Schultz returned to turnaround the company but found things different and he had to learn to listen. And he learned to listen even when his instinct told him differently. The company recovered and Howard Schultz urges everyone to listen more, “because you're not right all the time.”

The problem is none of us listen well. Despite the amount of time spent listening, the average person is likely to understand and retain half a conversation immediately (Atwater 1992). Within the next forty-eight hours we forget half of that again, retaining only 25% of what we originally heard within two days.

In business negotiations, listening is crucial. Former hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser believes listening resolves conflicts. Sometimes a person just needs to be listened to and acknowledged before willingly considering concessions. Furthermore, if we accurately understand the other person's view first, we can be more effective in our negotiations as Steven Covey aptly summarises, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

In business, learning how to really listen makes all the difference. When you listen well, you hear what customers really say and mean and what they are really looking to achieve. Leaders don't have all the answers but can find answers through listening (and Google!). Leaders are listeners. They listen up, down, and all around their organisation. Listening helps leaders:

unearth problems and detect miscommunication and conflict;

motivate employees and win loyalty. Genuine listening generates respect, rapport and trust. Employees respond better to, supervisors whom they believe are listening to them;

incubate innovative solutions. By not listening to your people, you chill innovation;

gather and evaluate ideas, generating solutions and results;

hear what their people really think about their jobs, motives, values and personal aspirations.

This requires leaders to have a new level of humility (admitting you don't know everything) and sureness (I'm smart enough to learn). Listening brings out the best in people, creating the kind of collaboration and energy that drives winning organisations. In 2007, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were interviewed together and was asked what would be the future of computing. Bill Gates went on to prophesy the tablet as the future, and started describing the future iPad while Steve listened intently. Two years later, Steve produced the iPad, exactly as Bill described it. Steve listened and won.

It's so easy to get distracted in the world of BlackBerrys, iPads, Twitter, Google+ and 500 e-mails a day that we become overwhelmed and can't find time to listen. Our people may even feel they are reporting to a leader's Blackberry,resulting in much communication getting lost in translation.

Be a Better Listener

What can you do to be become a better listener? Firstly, we need to understand the distinction between merely hearing the words and really listening for messages. When we listen effectively, we understand what the person is thinking and feeling from their viewpoint. We stand in the other person's shoes and see through their eyes. Here are some other tips to help you in your struggle to become a better listener:

Fight the urge to interrupt a person when they speak.

Keep telling yourself as you listen how “this is the most interesting thing I've ever heard!”

React with facial expressions, head nods, and posture to indicate you're processing what is heard. Use eye contact and listen' to body language. Avoid being distracted. Face the speaker and nod your head, when appropriate.

Wait until the person finishes speaking, then reflect, “Here's what I think you said.” Summarise. Then ask, “Did I get that right?”

Impede your impulse to instantaneously answer questions. Many times people ask questions to express themselves and not to receive an answer.

Ask questions. Just as eye contact makes people feel important, asking questions makes them feel as though their opinions count. Ask questions that move the conversation forward and give more opportunity to listen. Remember, questions jump-start thoughts, and thoughts jump-start actions. As Voltaire attest, “Judge a man not by his answers, but by his questions.”

Don't respond to just the meaning of the words, look for the feelings or intent beyond the words.

Last year, I interviewed Ram Charan for the Leaderonomics Show, our flagship leadership talk show. Prior to the interview, Ram and I managed to spend some time together. He was fascinated by the Talent Accelerator offered by Leaderonomics and started to ask me questions.

For the next few minutes, he looked me in the eyes and seemed to have a genuine interest in me and what I was saying. His gaze never left me. He made me feel like the most important person in the room at the time. It is no wonder that Ram Charan is highly regarded by global CEOs as the greatest business consultant in the world today. He listens more than he speaks.

IDEO, one of the most innovative companies in the world leverages listening to ensure inspired problem-solving. At IDEO, the company's leaders seek out the creative voice of team members and encourage team members to listen to one another, resulting in a constant flow of creativity and the ability to solve some of the toughest design challenges posed.

Final Thoughts

Over the past several years, I interviewed hundreds of leaders. One key leadership trait gets repeatedly emphasised great leaders are great listeners. Leaders solicit feedback, listen to opinions, and act on that intelligence. In fact, Gen X and Gen Y employees today expect to be listened to and not just be given their daily marching orders.

In the Star Wars prequel trilogy, we see the collapse of the world order. Padm Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, provides a reason for why the Republic collapses. She declares, “this represents a failure to listen.”

Her analysis is spot on. Even though the Republic's fall can be blamed on Palpatine, yet each of his manoeuvres to become Emperor were accomplished through exploiting people's tendencies to stop listening to each other. If enough people had recognised the danger of this tendency, the demise of the Republic could have been prevented in spite of Palpatine's devious plots. Failure to listen can bring down empires.

An ancient sage once said, “We have been given two ears but one single mouth, in order that we may listen more and talk less.” So, spend twice as much time learning to listen as you do learning to talk. After all, the greatest gift you can give someone is to be an interested listener. As you go through life, you are going to have many opportunities to keep your mouth shut. Take advantage of all of them and listen instead.

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