Are You Listening?

Aug 06, 2013 7 Min Read
listening, are you listening
Listening is Crucial

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 he asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Hearing no response, he moved closer to the kitchen and repeated “Honey what’s for dinner?”

Hearing no response from his bride, he moved into the dining room and once again asked, “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 walked directly behind her and said, “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 our employees’ listening ability but ours.

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 is the ability that we are least proficient at.

In one of our episodes of the Leaderonomics Show, our flagship leadership talk show, I interviewed Marshall Goldsmith. He writes in one of his books that, “80% of our success in learning from other people is based upon how well we listen.”

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, assuming since we hear well, that we listen well too. We fail to understand that hearing is the mechanical function of receiving sounds whilst 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 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. He illustrates that when we are 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 the great leaders maintain that level of focus and intense listening all the time.

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 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 only half a conversation immediately. Within the next 48 hours we forget half of that, again, retaining only 25% of what we originally heard.

Listening Grows Businesses

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 Stephen 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 mean and what they are looking to achieve. Leaders don’t have all the answers but can find answers through listening (and Google!).

Leaders 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).

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.

Be a Better Listener

What can you do to 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 he speaks
  • 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 that their opinions count. Remember, questions jump-start thoughts, and thoughts jump-start actions. As Voltaire attests, “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.

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 given their daily marching orders.

In the Star Wars prequel trilogy, we see the collapse of the world order. Padmé Amidala, played by Nathalie 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, 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 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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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at

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