How to Listen (It’s Not Easy)

Back in 2013, I wrote here about a group of practitioners’ consensus on listening as a powerful underlying leadership skill. Last month, we dove into the power of being fully heard, something that research continues to show has tremendous relational value as well as ROI. This month, we will explore why listening is so hard — and steps we can take to make our listening more effective.

Yes, listening … really listening … is hard. Like most things that we all do, there are levels of mastery that are only available to those who practice and train. Here then is a quick overview and some suggestions about how to become a better listener.

Believe it or not, your mind is not your friend when it comes to listening. Our brains are natural association engines. When someone is speaking about Italy, for example, our brain instantly begins to search for every reference it has about Italy: history classes, Roman myth, Sophia Loren, your favorite Italian restaurant and on and on and on. This is a natural result of having a powerful brain capable of making and retrieving the associations instantly.

Staying focused in the present requires a disciplined mind. A regular mindfulness practice builds that discipline. A little practice each day allows a listener to become focused and be less internally distracted by the mind’s remarkable ability to recall associations.

Another mental challenge is that information in our brains is organized by categories, like filing cabinets. By the time we are about 8 years old, most of us have created all the categories we think we need and stop creating new ones. All incoming information after that is filed away into one of our existing files.

The challenge here is twofold. As with associations, our minds are busy categorizing information as it comes in: good/bad, red/blue, right/wrong, agree/disagree. And while we are filing, we are removing processing overhead from the power our brain has available to focus as a listener.

But more dangerous is what happens to information that does not fit into one of our internal filing cabinets. Without a defined file to store it in, the brain will often miss or even ignore that information. We simply replace it or connect the dots with information our brain was expecting (based on information it already has). So we often hear what we want or expect to hear in both subtle and powerful ways.

The best way to mitigate this challenge is by becoming purposeful and focused in where we put our attention. Professional listeners — therapists, coaches, consultants and some salespeople and attorneys — know that if you really want to focus on picking up all of the information available in a communication, you need to remove distractions and listen for more than just the words used.

While the jury is out about research on multitasking (and what we know varies by age), it is true that the processing power of our brains, while vast, is finite. Anything that removes our full attention dilutes our ability to listen.

In addition, we must focus on more than the words spoken. Context, physical presence, tone, word choice, syntax and more are all part of communication and often hold more valuable information than the spoken words.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult to achieve, great listeners manage what they are listening for. In a debate or meeting, most people are listening for openings, for vulnerability in the argument coming across the table or even for opportunities to interrupt. In essence we are listening to win, not to understand.

Listening to truly understand is harder. It requires that we be willing to suspend our disagreement and allow curiosity to lead. It often takes longer. But the dividend of listening so intently that we could argue the other person’s point of view on their behalf is huge. Agreement is not the goal, just understanding.

If nothing else, while I am listening, I am not interrogating or backing someone else into a corner that will encourage him to shut down or come out swinging.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June  8, 2015.