Southampton, United Kingdom
Listening. It’s a simple and effective tool that demonstrates respect, develops learning and builds inclusive communities, historically we learned to hunt and fish by listening to stories.
Good listening allows us to actively show we are paying attention. In the classroom or boardroom, listening helps us connect to thoughts, ideas, information, feelings and behaviours. It is crucial to maintaining productive relationships and is key to establishing quality communication.
The Chinese character for listening shows we need to listen with our whole being. Specifically, it identifies the need to listen with your eyes, heart and ears, to treat the other person as royalty and give them your undivided attention. Listening is not a spectator sport – as I am famed for saying – therefore we have got to get involved!
In a recent workshop I delivered, we discussed the value of listening and here’s what people said happened when they felt listening was present in conversations:
- I feel valued
- What I have to say matters
- You care about me
- Listening helps me learn new things
- I get an emotional connection
- Being listened to helps me think things through
- Listening leads to clarity and understanding
- Develops trust
- I opened up more
We know listening skills are essential to many business roles and functions such as managing, coaching, mentoring, facilitation, negotiation and interviewing, to name but a handful. Good listening is also a vital part of decision making, reaching agreements, feedback, influencing and overcoming conflict and disagreements.
Without listening, no organisation can hope to operate or survive, though many pay scant regard to the ability of the organisation to listen. Perhaps in the future, this will be corrected. Effective listening is essential for the organisation to gather information required to enable it to adapt to meet the changing needs of staff, customers and the marketplace. Now, more than ever, we are facing changing needs. Ferrari (2012) identifies listening as the most critical business skill of all. He notes, ‘listening can well be the difference between profit and loss, between success and failure’, and goes on to say listening can be the difference between a successful career and a short one!
Listening benefits us professionally in many ways from improved leadership, learning and trust. Hoppe (2006) lists many professional advantages of active listening, indicating that it helps us to better understand and make connections between ideas and information; change perspectives and challenge assumptions; empathise and show respect or appreciation, which can enhance our relationships; and build self-esteem. Conversely, it is widely recognised that when people aren’t listening, it becomes much more difficult to get things done effectively and trust diminishes leading to potential conflict and disengagement. Bell and Mejer, identify poor listening as a ‘silent killer of productivity and profit,’ and state that change becomes extremely difficult to implement in a work environment when people are not listening.
Listening is key in personal relationships. Steven Covey (Seven Habits) tells how a CEO of a 35,000 employee-business came to acknowledge the importance of listening after his wife told him that he didn’t listen to their daughter. Having listened to that wonderful feedback, he honed his listening skills. He grew closer to his daughter and having learned the value of listening he applied it to his business.
Studies by Bommelje, Houston and Smither, show a strong link between effective listening and academic success, supporting previous research in this field linking listening skills to exam results. This finding is unsurprising as the better you listen at school, the better prepared you will be for your assignments and exams. It is quite simple really because when we listen we pick instructions, feedback, useful facts and insights that improve our learning journey and the quality of coursework.
Humans crave both certainty and uncertainty. We have our own unique levels and needs for both. Doubtless, it’s a balancing act we constantly – often unconsciously – struggle to manage. If some things become more uncertain, such as now in lockdown, it is likely we will seek more certainty from where we can get it, such as key relationships, and we can give and receive more ‘certainty’ through better communication and listening. Listening lets us hear others and connect with emotions and needs, which increases the other person’s self-esteem. If we are clear on our communication and believe we have been heard, we can feel more certain, more valued and this impacts positively on our place in life.
But how does all this help us in lockdown? Humans are social creatures, we are herd animals, and yet we are being asked to live in isolation.
Being on lockdown will put pressure on the few face-to-face relationships and the many virtual relationships we will be managing in these unprecedented times. Not just professional virtual work calls but personal calls with elderly relatives and at-risk family members. These calls to family members will almost certainly need extra care and attention, and may even stretch our listening and patience to breaking point. Imagine living alone and being uncertain, even scared; now think how important these virtual calls are for many people living in isolation. Remember the Chinese character and treat these people like royalty and listen with all your being.
What are the barriers to us listening well to each other?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but here’s what I hear often from people:
- Leaders think they know best
- People are busy and don’t have time to listen
- There is insufficient trust or respect in the relationship
- Others don’t value what I say
- My kids don’t listen to me: they think I just ‘blah’
- Past experiences with the other person get in the way
- I don’t feel confident if I don’t know the answers
In lockdown, we need to park our ego and some of the excuses that we use to not listen, and take advantage of this opportunity to learn and upskill ourselves, listen better, connect with others and, as Shay McConnon says ‘listen people into existence’. However good we think we are at listening, now’s the time for all of us to improve, or begin developing, listening skills.
Given that lockdown requires almost all conversation to be virtual, here are some tips to having better virtual conversations, and it’s no surprise that listening is in there:
- Reduce or remove interference and distraction
- Prepare yourself to really listen and connect with the other person/people
- Turn off notifications on your phone and shut laptops
- Listen more
- Use verbal nods (ahs and hmms to show you are listening)
- Summarise and reflect more to check understanding
- Share thoughts and feelings out loud
- Value silence (active silence, not sleeping)
- Be respectful
- Ask more, and better, questions
Learning is a result of listening, at the individual through to the organisational level, from our very early days on earth to heady heights of leading and serving others in industry and government. Perhaps now as individuals, communities, and organisations, we need to start to listen at the greater and more pressing level of our planet. It seems to me that Mother Nature is crying out to have her message heard and her needs met. Will we listen and learn in time?
I strongly sense we need to listen and therefore learn our way into our future, together.
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