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On Listening

As toddlers, it’s one of the first things we learn how to do. Then we go off to Kindergarten and get years of practice. We listen to our teachers, our classmates, our music instructors, our coaches, and our clergy. We listen to our friends, neighbors, siblings, and teammates. Some of us even grow up listening to imaginary friends. But how many of us are really listening?

The kind of listening practice I’ve just described is really more about hearing, or obeying, or sometimes (regrettably) even fearing. We then grow up, go off to college or other forms of advanced training, and get jobs. Some of us get government jobs. But once we’re in these jobs, we’re expected to know how to listen to one another. The need becomes even more acute during one’s first formal supervisory experience, but it’s no less valuable for any other role in an organization.

  • When we listen, we show respect and build relationships.
  • When we listen, we pick up on things we would have otherwise missed.
  • When we listen, we have more data to make decisions.
  • When we listen, we make strategic linkages in our heads.

Human resources professionals are often seen as the “paid listeners” of an organization — there to hear an EEO complaint or listen to the uncomfortable details of an employee dispute. But who is listening when no one’s listening? With a little practice, it could be you.

What does listening mean to you?

Andy Lowenthal is a public sector strategy consultant. Follow him on 
Twitter and friend him on GovLoop.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

At one point earlier this year, I realized that I might be doing more talking and less listening in key meetings with our team. So I made a conscious effort to just listen, to wait for someone to say, “Andy, what do you think? You’re being quiet” — and to see what I’d actually learn from that process.

What I found is that I took more notes, and I heard the nuance and motivation behind people’s words – not just what they were trying to say and what I’m hearing through my own filter…but what they were really saying.

I also tried to measure my own words as a result and to be more intentional with what I shared…to make sure I meant it and that it would be meaningful and contribute something unique to the conversation.

I suppose you could do it as a pilot exercise – try it for the next 2-3 meetings and see what happens.

Corey McCarren

Listening is great for empathy and learning. Both will get you very far. People like speaking to someone they feel can relate to, and you’ll learn a lot about how to get ahead in or improve an organization if you make sure to listen.

Andy Lowenthal

Thanks for your insights, Andy and Corey. I think it’s a great idea for folks to challenge themselves to hone their listening skills in meetings — doesn’t require any professional development dollars whatsoever. No one will realize that you’re making a purposeful effort to practice a behavior. And you’ll learn something new about yourself, and those around you.

As a default “listener,” I often have to pilot exercise forcing myself to speak. But for many, speaking isn’t the problem. It’s patient, perceptive, active listening.

Raymond Clark

Super topic. One of the little understood aspects of listning is its not only a “hearing” function, its a “visual” one, too. Ever talk with someone and know they aren’t really listening to you? Ever find yourself drifting off in a conversation with someone, even though you’re looking at that person?

I try and pay attention to how I am interacting with a person or group in a visual sense. Am I projecting a sincere image that I am paying attention to what’s being said. Is it positive and non-condensending? For me, it seems to open people up when they believe you are actually listning and they know that by how you are seen, as well as heard.

Tina Mertel

Yes. I agree listening is a key to so many things. It reminds me of the philosophy of various martial arts. Allow the energy (and words) to come in your direction, process this, and then decide to respond and how you will respond. So many conversations are often reactions hitting reactions. Thank you for the reminder that listening is such a valuable tool for all of us.

Henry Brown

The one thing that I could add is: spend some time confirming what you are hearing/listening.

What this means is you can insure that you have perhaps removed some of the filters that most people apply while listening

Raymond Clark

Yes, good point, Henry. A good way to do this is to ask clarifying questions. That helps you unserstand the question, and ensures the speaker he or she is delivering the intended message.

Andy Lowenthal

Great point, Tina — if you’re listening more than speaking, you’re less likely to be reactive (in the pejorative sense).

Henry/Raymond — it sounds like you’re describing the key tenets of active listening. Checking for understanding by rephrasing key points, asking clarifying questions, exhibiting a listening posture or stance. All of these are necessary components of the kind of listening I’m referring to, but they don’t tell the entire story.

Some would argue that listening and speaking are two sides of the same coin. I would argue that listening and thinking make stronger partners. One of the best ways to maximize listening ROI (since we love ROI in HR), is to think about everything else that comes with what’s being said. For example:

  • What are they NOT saying?
  • Is the speaker working with limited data or an abundance of data?
  • What other possible motivations might be driving these thoughts or opinions?
  • What kinds of logical fallacies do I detect here?
  • Are the dynamics of personal relationships distorting or enhancing our conversation?
  • Are we speaking formally or informally? With what degree of openness?

We love to practice our public speaking, but how often do we practice our listening?

Karen "Kari" Uhlman

As a Certified Achieve-Global facilitator, I try to implement the Key Actions for Proactive Listening by:

  1. showing interest in what the speaker has to say.
  2. ask questions to clarify, gather information, and focus the conversation.
  3. let the speaker know that I understand.
Karen "Kari" Uhlman

Hi Raymond,

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