Can You Hear Me Now?

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has an amazing impact on business communications. Curiosity is the single most important key to truly effective listening. And truly effective listening has the power to reinvent a business.

Most of us hold a higher opinion of our listening skills than feedback from colleagues and staff (not to mention spouses and children) would support. One of the most common traits I hear when people recount meetings with truly great leaders is that they “listened as if I was the only person in the world who mattered and were truly interested in what I was saying.” Listening at that level is way beyond simply paying attention and using what trainers often call active listening skills. Developing the focus to truly listen well takes years. While there are no shortcuts, a fast start is found in the reality that better listening is most enabled by genuine curiosity.

Curiosity is not as simple as it may sound. Curiosity in this case means curiosity for its own sake rather than for a purpose or agenda. And this is hard because our brains are organic machines for sorting information. Our default way of listening is to sort and classify what we are hearing as it arrives.

The next time you are in a meeting and trying to listen well, notice how your mind classifies the information coming in. Generally, we listen for assessment or action. We are sorting information that is useful from that that is not, information with which we agree from that that we do not buy. And we are often listening for information on which we can act to our advantage. One way to see this in action is to notice the responses from others and ourselves. If a colleague’s story about a European vacation prompts a recounting of my own adventures on the continent, I am not genuinely curious. The hint is that my response is about me, not about his subject. If my response to a new product idea is to immediately try to fit it mentally into the current product development process, I am listening for action rather than allowing my curiosity to remain focused on the idea.

These are not necessarily bad forms of listening and have their place; however, both use a historical perspective for understanding, making creativity and innovation a greater challenge. In short, this form of listening is practical but limits us to the perspective of past experience. But if I allow my natural curiosity to guide my focus of attention, I will respond differently. Questions now are future focused and designed to deepen my understanding (and perhaps that of others) of the new idea. In this fertile ground, even a delicate seed can take root, opening possibilities that are not limited by past experience.

Add to this fundamental focus of attention the other more subtle listening skills such as an understanding of body language, word choice and phrasing and logical development, and we can begin to see how much effort and awareness real listening requires. You may think that this is overkill or even gilding the lily of just paying attention. If so, I suggest that you talk with someone who has been in a meeting where he has been heard this way. Ask him to describe his experience and attitude toward the person or organization that listened to him so well. Then ask yourself what would be different in your organization if your staff and colleagues had that experience from you, even occasionally.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, September 25, 2006.