As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I can’t stay in shape just by running a few times a week. I’m having to push myself to do strength training activities that I more or less despise. These are often exercises that look so simple! And yet I can barely lift my arms to wash my hair the next day. Another reminder that just because something seems simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Listening is another excellent example of this truism. We tend to conflate hearing and listening, because listening requires that we use our ears. Hearing is easy because it’s passive. But listening is so much more than just hearing. It demands a level of attention that many of us are unaccustomed to. Concentrated, sustained attention on an object other than ourselves. It’s simple, yes, but incredibly difficult. To listen deeply and actively, we also use our eyes, our minds, just sound. And when we practice this, we strengthen those muscles. Even more than what we get is what we give.
At a program I facilitated recently, we used a straightforward active listening activity to illustrate both the difficulty and power of high-level listening. People were paired with a partner, and the partner was instructed to speak about something for two minutes; the listener was instructed to listen carefully and then to reflect back what they heard for two minutes. I love this activity, and it never fails to surprise me how much participants enjoy it too. Several people commented that they intended to use it with their own teams on a regular basis. What did they experience in those four minutes that made them appreciate listening and its power more than ever before?
The leader of the team shared that when his partner was talking, he noticed himself thinking about how to solve the problem being presented. But further he realized that when he was constrained from talking and had to keep listening, he learned that the problem was far more complicated than he initially realized, and that his desire to solve the problem quickly actually would have not resolved the core issues underlying the problem. Moreover, with continued listening, he not only better understood how the problem impacted his partner, but realized that they actually knew far better than him what the ideal solution would entail. By truly listening to his partner, and not interjecting his own thoughts and perspective prematurely, he empowered him to solve the problem. By resisting taking the reins, he conferred accountability. By being patient and curious, not only did he learn something, he gave his partner a sense of ownership and confidence in their ability to handle the situation themselves.
It’s common nature to want to jump in and help solve problems, but we can actually help people even more by being a good listener for them. In this way, effective listening becomes a powerful tool for strengthening relationships and developing and engaging your people. Listening in this manner does not come easily to us, especially in this day and age when we have so many distractions and inputs and everything seems to move so much faster. We are losing our collective attention span, and it’s easy to lose sight of what else we might lose in the process. If you’re a leader or manager who wants to enhance your influence, consider that it may have as much to do with what you don’t say as what you do.