Are You REALLY Listening?

We live in a culture that loves to talk. We love to hear ourselves speak. We want others to hear us express our opinions and feelings.

I feel one of the biggest shortcomings in organizations today is the fact that they are filled with people who talk a lot and listen very little.  Of times, communication is viewed as a one-way street on which our leaders do all the talking and the followers get to listen.  One of my biggest sources of frustration is to sit in a meeting with a respected executive and know that person is not hearing a word that I say. It happens all the time.

I believe that the failure to listen causes many leaders to miss problems in their organization.  Leaders that don’t listen will often miss out on new ideas and opportunities to improve organizational operations.  Major mistakes could be avoided if our leaders truly listened to their employees and peers.

How is it that 45 percent of our communication time is spent listening and yet, there is so little listening that takes place?  For starters, the dearth of listening in our culture can be traced to the success that leaders have enjoyed during their careers.  Leaders don’t become leaders by sitting around listening.  They become leaders by being action- oriented people that have gotten results throughout the various stages of their career.  Leaders get used to having other people listening to them.  People respect their opinion, as well they should.  The problem comes in when leaders lose interest in other people’s opinions.

The second challenge when it comes to listening is that listening takes time.  It can get messy. It’s easy to think of our talking points and….talk.  But, listening to someone?  Well, it means I’m not getting something else done that I need to be doing at that minute.  It’s easy to avoid the conversation, interrupt or worse, pretend like you are listening and make a run for it when there is a natural break in the action.  Trust me, you’re not fooling anybody.

I had a colleague that was promoted into management.  He was a disaster on a lot of levels.  He told his staff that he had an “open door” policy.  He encouraged people to come in and talk.  He quickly found out that he hated the open door. He felt he was getting a bunch of whiners and complainers that were wasting his time.  He soon ended his open door policy (his management career ended soon after that).  Later he half-jokingly told me that when he writes his book, the first chapter was going to be titled, “Don’t Have an Open Door.”

The failure to listen in organizations is a silent epidemic that can kill genuine two-way communication. If we don’t listen to our employees and peers, how long will it be before you stop hearing your customers and potential customers?  Then what happens?

Listening is an investment.  You are investing your time into the careers and lives of other people when you listen to them. It matters.  People know if you are listening or not.  They value the fact that you listen to them.  It may feel like a drain on your time, but when one considers the return on that investment, you should conclude that listening makes good bottom line sense.

I believe that answers to every question, concern and challenge in organizations can be found within the people in that organization.  But, in order to discover those answers, leaders need to invest precious time in strengthening their listening skills.  Make a commitment today to strengthen your own listening skills and those of others in your organization.

Next time, we’ll look at the three levels of listening and what it requires to take your listening performance to the highest level.

Listening may be the best statement you can make.