Have you noticed? Listening skills in our society are deteriorating, and it comes at a high cost. More than ever, people are slow to reflect and quick to react. Rather than doing the hard work of listening and seeking to understand, many rush to judgment and are quick to accuse and denounce. The result is an alarming breakdown of the respectful dialogue and debate that are necessary for making good decisions and solving the problems we face.
Wherever it is found, poor listening does great damage to communication and the effective exchange of information and ideas. Poor listening hinders the sharing of thoughts and feelings. It weakens organizational culture and undermines performance. It cripples teamwork and collaboration. Poor listening damages any relationship, personal or professional.
Better listening, on the other hand, makes everything better.
Mindset First, Skill Set Second
Elite listening is a mindset first and a skill set second. Technique is involved, to be sure, but listening begins with an attitude of caring and a mindset of humility and curiosity. It is possible to have great listening technique, but not really pay attention and therefore fail to hear what someone is saying. Indeed, many people work harder at appearing like they’re listening than they do at actually listening! The truth is that if you don’t really care, you won’t really listen.
Do you recognize those times when the most powerful thing you can do is simply care and listen? You’ve heard the saying: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. It is an accurate statement! Keep in mind that caring is a discipline, not an emotion. It is something you do, not something you feel.
Here is a definition of the caring required for listening:
Find out what is important to the other person and
make it important to you in a way they can feel it.
Read that definition again. Let it sink in. Think about it deeply. The point is that caring is not about how you feel; it is about adopting a mindset that focuses on discovering what is important to the other person.
Open Heart, Disciplined Mind
To really hear and understand what someone is saying requires an open heart and a disciplined mind. There are layers to what someone is thinking and feeling, and to actively listen requires peeling back the layers. That kind of listening can be difficult and time-consuming work.
The heart challenge is that we tend to be self-oriented. We get preoccupied with our own ideas and opinions and fail to listen carefully to the perspective of others. This makes us quick to dismiss the opinion of other people and just as quick to defend our own point of view. A mindset of humility and curiosity is essential. It doesn’t mean your ideas and opinions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean you aren’t important. It simply means putting your opinion on hold for a season so you can focus on the other person and really listen.
Becoming an effective listener requires eliminating the self-orientation that hinders you from truly caring about people and hearing their stories and ideas. If you want to make a difference, you must listen. If you want to listen, you must develop the discipline to care. Listening and self-centeredness are incompatible.
The mental challenge is that the mind processes information 4X faster than the average person speaks. This mismatch in processing speed can cause our mind to drift away from truly listening and hearing what someone else is saying. The result is we tend to listen to our own inner commentary more than we listen to the other person.
Here are four mental obstacles that get in the way of listening:
- Focusing on what you want to say next. The other person is talking, and instead of listening, you are thinking about and preparing what you want to say in response. You aren’t listening; you are simply waiting to talk. This is an easy trap to fall into, and it happens with great frequency. In order to listen, you must develop the self-awareness to tune out the voice in your head.
- Jumping to conclusions because you assume you understand. It’s easy to rush to a conclusion without listening and getting the info that matters. Sometimes you think you understand, when in fact you don’t. There is almost always more to the story. Don’t assume. Your job is to listen and seek to understand.
- Critiquing the person rather than seeking to understand. People have quirks, habits, and idiosyncrasies when they communicate, and it is easy to fixate on those mannerisms, get distracted, and fail to listen. It’s also tempting to mentally criticize and critique the person’s message rather than seeking to understand the message. Keep your heart open and your mind disciplined. Listening comes first; evaluation comes second.
- Thinking about something other than what the person is saying. Let’s face it, our minds wander and we are easily distracted. Remember, our minds process information faster than people can speak. Further, there are times when we just are not very interested in what the other person is saying. Once again, this is where the discipline of caring comes in.
If you want to communicate, connect, and collaborate, you must first listen. If you want to listen, you must make the discipline-driven decision to care. Do not let how you feel get in the way of how you listen.
*In my next blog I introduce the “FOCUS” framework for improving the way you listen.