Sunday, 21 November 2010 00:00

Just Shut Up and Listen

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A speaker at a recent conference asked the well-dressed audience, "When is the best time to listen?" As with most presenters' questions, there was a host of blank stares, a few people rustled in their seats, and the remainder diverted their eyes to their laps as if a sudden important message had appeared on their notepad. After a pregnant pause the answer came, "When someone is talking." A relieved, yet embarrassed, chuckle rippled through the suit-clad audience. The advice is a good start; however, listening entails significantly more effort.

Listening is Learning

Key to listening is the concept of learning. If you are not trying to learn something from the speaker, you are not listening. Use the same traits when listen as you do when you are learning something. Repeat what you hear, ask for clarification, and take notes. Taking notes may seem like overkill for many conversations and is inappropriate when people are telling deeply personal issues; however, writing down what someone says is complimentary to the speaker. Few things make people feel better than having their thoughts being important enough to archive.

At times people need or want their thoughts to be challenged. If you are uncertain on whether they want critical input, ask. If people are simply looking to vent, advice may only annoy them making matters worse. Of course, giving guidance demands more than understanding the speaker's desire, it requires a thorough comprehension of the subject. Making whimsical, ill-thought comments are insulting. Make sure all criticism is pertinent, clear, and constructive.

Learning is a Humbling Act

One of the characteristics of good leaders is that they are learners; hence, they are good listeners. This is no coincidence considering the connection between learning and listening. Good leaders are also humble. Being humble requires both listening and learning. This is part of what makes a leader great. The willingness to listen and learn acknowledges that they we do not know everything.

No Action Required

Listening requires participation, not action. We need to pay attention. Unfortunately, many of us came up through the ranks of the technologist, which has conditioned us otherwise. Our lives consist of a continuous stream of puzzles to solve—subordinates presenting problems, children needing help with homework, and myriad of gadgets to be fiddled with. We listen, dissect the problem, and take or suggest corrective action. The other night my wife was recounting an exasperating conversation with one of our children. When she had barely finished the first couple of sentences, I offered some advice to address her frustration. She sternly gazed at me, interrupting with a curt, "Would you please stop trying to solve the problem and just listen?"

Message received. I will shut up, learning my own lesson.

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