Leaders Know Listening is Hard


When you’re trying to get a lot of work done in your house, apartment, or condo, do you listen to iTunes? While you’re on a road trip to visit your brother in college, do you turn on the radio and crank out the volume? Or perhaps you’re a Pandora junkie like me who loves creating their own stations? Then again, some of you don’t listen to music. During times when others listen to music, you put your brain in neutral or, conversely, overload it with insanely difficult problems you’re trying to solve. I admire you, even if that’s not my thing.

Me? I love music. I’ve listened to classic rock, jazz, country, Christian, blues, classical, bluegrass, and folk music on vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, digital, and streaming for many years. My music selection depends on my mood and what I need to accomplish. The music I listen to when I do yard work is different than when I’m writing (like right now). I currently listen to music via my Amazon Echo (aka “Alexa”) when I’m in the house. It’s now uncommon for me to say, “Alex, play 60s rock.” Or, “Alexa, play Phantom of the Opera.”

But for some reason that I haven’t fully discovered, at work, I find myself listening to reggae. Now, I’m not even a huge reggae fan but I find it relaxing. When stressed, I like to put on a bit of reggae and get myself reoriented. Perhaps it has something to do with the décor in my office – sunsets, beaches, diving pictures, and the like. And though all are pictures from SE Asia, many visitors to my office think they’re from the Caribbean. No matter, the music and visual reminders put me in a different place. And soon I feel the stress dissipate and I’m back at it.

But while listening to reggae music on Pandora or Air1 radio (a contemporary Christian station that’s another favorite) is easy for me, I find that listening to people can be more difficult. I was reminded of that recently while taking an online class from Harvard. I was reminded that there are distractions and obstacles that make it difficult to truly listen to others. Some are obstacles we place in the way and others are, in some ways, pre-existing. Either way, we can’t truly listen to others while so distracted. Whoever said listening was easy anyhow? Great leaders know that listening is hard.

If you’re married, you know listening is hard! If you have children, you know it! If you have parents, the same! If you have co-workers, ugh! If you have a boss (and who doesn’t), wow! If you have neighbors, have mercy! And the ironic thing is that many of us believe that while others aren’t good listeners, we are. Wrong! The reason that it’s hard is we have too many “things” competing for our attention.

That said, I’m going to give a few key tips that will help your listening skills (assuming you apply them!). And remember, while sounding simple, they are difficult to implement and require true expertise to master.

  1. Don’t multitask. Just don’t do it. Put your phone down. Put it on silent mode. Turn it off. Put your tablet down. Close your laptop. Turn off the radio and TV. Put the dog outside. Simply put, don’t multitask. And remove, eliminate or reduce the likelihood of a distraction coming into the mix. It’s disruptive to have an incoming call during the middle of a conversation. Even IF you don’t answer it.
  2. Repeat. We all know it and it may sound goofy, but repeating key points of the conversation is a real-time test of your understanding. It lets the other person know you’re tracking. Don’t overdo it. Rephrase. Summarize. Synthesize. Test whether you’re really hearing what they’re saying.
  3. Ask questions. Seek to understand. Test your knowledge. Dig into important details. Get the context, the “story.” Clarify.
  4. Don’t problem-solve. While tempting, don’t do it. Often, the other person just wants to be heard. Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen. Truly listen. Many times the other person will work it out if you listen. Or maybe they just need validation. Or to “vent.” There is a time and place for problem-solving, but there’s also a time for listening. Think of listening as the information-gathering (or problem-definition) phase of problem-solving if you must.
  5. Listening isn’t agreeing. Over the years I’ve learned two things that have helped me here. 1) You don’t have to share everything you know during a conversation. You don’t have to give voice to every thought that forms in your brain. And 2) Listening to another’s views, thoughts, or opinions doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them. In fact, you might have to let something you disagree with go uncontested. Read that again. I didn’t say it was easy. I said it was hard.

What about YOU? Are you a good listener? What tips do you use? Willing to share any with your fellow readers?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


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