Listen Up! Understand How Important it is to Listen

Listening is a problem of the ages.

October 25, 1854, in the Crimean War, British Light Brigade is ordered to attack from the flanks, but muddled orders result in a frontal attack, wiping out half the regiment. Someone was not listening.

July 2, 1863, Confederate General Longstreet misinterprets General Lee’s orders to attack, advancing three hours too late. A listening error that may have altered the battle of Gettysburg…. and the Civil War.

And lest we forget how critical listening is, just look to the night of April 14, 1912 when the crew of the Titanic was urgently warned of ice…but chose not to listen.

In more recent times, industry titans choose not to listen to change and are now a shadow of former greatness: Borders, Blockbuster, JC Penny, Kodak, Palm, Radio Shack, Sears, Tie Rack, Toys R Us, Pan Am and many more.

Whether it be in battle, business or life, not knowing how to listen is one of our greatest problems.

Some of these details were edited from a 1979 television commercial for Sperry Corporation that developed and launched an uncommon global cultural and organizational change, encompassing sales, training and public policy programs, under the umbrella -- Sperry: We understand how important it is to listen.

As a young corporate manager, I was privileged to be on the team that developed and advanced that program.

Think about your youth.

In school, we studied reading, writing and arithmetic. We were called on to stand and speak reading passages or answer questions.

At university, we studied mathematics, science, music and art. Other courses focused on public speaking, speaking a foreign language, perhaps even acting.

But with all this instruction, few were taught how to listen!

The pandemic dramatically altered life and workplace skills so let’s understand how important it is to listen.

First, great leaders are good listeners.

Peter Drucker, Austrian-born American management consultant, said “Listening is not a skill; it’s a discipline. Anybody can do it. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.” He went on to say, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.”

Well…I agree with some of Drucker’s comments.

Listening is a skill that can be taught, learned and improved upon with focus and practice.

Generally, managers direct operations, financial and human capital to accomplish objectives. Leaders inspire, influence, motivate and enable others to take a different path. In a crisis, leaders step forward and managers must step back.

Leaders understand what needs to be changed, then implemented and accomplished. They do that by actively listening to constituents: employees, management, investors, customers, partners, vendors, regulators, media and social commentary, as well as community, industry and government stakeholders.

As a sail racer, I listen to telltales. Listening to them improves performance dramatically. They tell what is happening at one moment of time on different parts of the sailboat. You must also listen to telltales in meetings and conversations with constituents.

What are telltales telling you? Leaders need to understand constituents’ views: what they are saying, why they are saying it, and when they are saying it. Listening is effective when what you heard is timely -- so that appropriate action or inaction ensues.

Key point: Do listen for what is not being said? In meetings, care you read nonverbal cues in eyes, facial expressions, body posture or gestures? On the phone do you listen carefully for tone, hesitation or cadence? Also, notice who did not participate and said nothing.

Second, “Listening Mode”

Just before a meeting, conference or virtual call…pause and say: “I am now in active listening mode.” That does not mean be tense. It means relax and pay active attention to the conversation by listening to the speaker(s) and not talking. Do not multitask. Active listening requires no distractions. That includes smart phones.

In virtual meetings, continually look directly into the camera, unless taking notes. People are viewing you on a screen. They will relate their learned environment to TV characters as good guys or villains. Make sure you are identified correctly by showing you are engaged and actively listening.

Last week on a long virtual call, at a critical point in the conversation, one senior executive leaned back in his chair with folded arms. That body signal demonstrated he checked out and was no longer listening. You cannot make this up. He probably would not do that in the office but could easily slip into that sitting in front of a home computer.

Key point: If you are hosting or managing the meeting, become a listening champion. Remind everyone at the beginning about best practices for speaking, be brief, to the point…and that brevity will allow everyone to listen better.

A Microsoft research report show the average human attention span is now eight seconds, less than that of goldfish with nine seconds. Notably, today we choose to receive information in short clips. People shut down listening to long talks.

Echoing that, Twitter has been very successful and influential; we now live in a Twitter 280-character world. Note that is 280 characters, not 280 words.

During in-person meetings, adopt the same guidance at the beginning as virtual meetings. One way to demonstrate active listening, is if someone states something that you don’t understand, or if acronyms or industry jargon are used, ask the speaker to explain and why that is important.

Key point: Don’t be afraid to stop and ask if all understand points the speaker is addressing. This will not only confirm messages and information are received correctly, but will position you as actively listening, gracious, and involved.

Third, Good Listening Does Not Mean Agreement

When you are in active listening mode, many consultants or HR trainers suggest you nod your head in meetings or on virtual calls. Do Not Do That. Awful advise.

Turn the telescope around. The person speaking will think you are agreeing with what they are saying, and you may not agree with their comments.

Listening is not hearing. In life we have heard people comment, “you’re not hearing me”. “No, I am hearing you -- and I understand your point of view. I have listened to you, but I do not agree.”

Key point: Listening and understanding is NOT agreeing. However, do keep an open mind so you can understand different points of view. What are the two or three take always you heard? Focus and note key thoughts and phrases.

Fourth, No Silver Bullets

Lawyers and business executives are action oriented. In many cases they shut down what’s coming at them, sometimes prejudging an answer.

If you are listening to a problem, we immediately want to suggest a solution. Have patience.

Key point: Paradoxically, we probably listen and think faster than almost anyone can speak. Sometimes this moves us to conclusions as we are thinking, rather than listening to the speaker. That is a hidden barrier of good listening.

Think about the problem. Inform the group that you will review ideas and suggestions and get back to them. Then, after an appropriate amount of time -- depending on the issue -- come back with specific common bonds, ideas and action items.

Sometimes it is a good idea to circle back to an individual in that meeting and say, “let me make sure I understand what you were saying” and paraphrase them. That shows respect for their intellect and their point of view.

Fifth, Listening is Active Two-way Communication.

In social media, as in life, we follow influencers (leaders). Social media is just that, it is social. It requires interaction, back and forth communication. So does listening.

After you have actively listened, ask open ended questions about the speaker’s remarks or specific points. But remember point # 4. Don’t react.

Listen to seek out what employees, customers and others are thinking.

Key point: Significant listening opportunities include town halls, small meetings, one-on-one meetings, focus groups, toll free numbers, suggestions boxes with awards, confidential snail-mail or email, cool graffiti walls in offices and analysis of company or competitor social media...are all ways to listen to commentary inside and outside your organization.

But as you are listening, are you open to comprehend different points of view?

Similar to Sperry, build a workplace culture on the importance of listening to all constituents. When my firm does analysis of constituents’ commentary, many executives are surprised at the results presented, both good and not so good. Have they been listening?

Sixth, Listening for What Clients Really Want

My good friend, Ron Levine, senior litigator at Herrick, Feinstein, in a recent discussion, outlined a terrific listening technique: “The ability to listen is a critical skill for lawyers. Indeed, law schools have been teaching “Mindfulness” to help lawyers with their ability, among other things, to focus on clients.

“When I meet with potential clients, I try to listen carefully before suggesting any recommended strategy.

“One technique I use is to draw a line across the middle of a page of a legal pad. Ask the client to write down on the top of the line what the client would like to happen. After they have completed that, ask the client to write down on the lower half of the page what they are prepared to accept.

Key point: “Too often lawyers only listen to the top half of the page. Clients will invariably tell you they want to win the case. That said, clients are often willing to settle and accept less, especially if they save costs, fees and time.”

Seventh, Challenge Yourself to be a Champion Listener.

Are you a good listener? I could do much better. So, I challenged myself to be a much better listener. Will you challenge yourself as well?

For all meetings on your schedule next week, set up a quick and simple five-point rating sheet for yourself and complete after each meeting. Jot it down on a legal pad.

For each answer, mark yourself: 0 for bad, 1 for ok, 2 for good.

--Were you an active listener as described in point #1?

--Were you distracted?

--Did you interrupt or talk over anyone?

--Did you make good notes of comments at the meeting because you were in listening mode?

--Did you listen to telltales of unspoken words or body language and what did they tell you?

If you score 8 or higher from a total of 10 for each meeting, you are a good listener. If not, perhaps read this article again and adopt some ideas…... and test yourself again the following week.

Understanding how important it is to listen is a great strength.

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