Briefings Magazine

A Simple but Lost Art

Becoming a great listener takes practice, but it pays big dividends.

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By: Liz Bentley

Bentley is the founder and CEO of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm focused on empowering leaders and their teams.

Listening is one of the most important yet neglected executive skills. I find that executives constantly work on improving their communication, presentation, and project-management skills. But rarely does someone ask for coaching on their listening—which is interesting, because in general, we are not great at it.

On the one hand, listening seems like it should be easy to master; on the other, our brain, in all of its complexity, often derails us. The problem is that we like our own perspective best. We like the way we see the world. But listening requires opening ourselves to someone else’s perspective. When people are speaking, we are often listening to reply—judging them, finding fault in their opinion, or interrupting them. Rather than hearing them, we’re thinking about how their thoughts relate to our own life.

Listening is also hard because we tend to lack focus. To really listen to someone, we need to let our mind go blank. We need to stop being distracted by our own thoughts—what I call “silently talking in our head.”

Also, sometimes we don’t know how to participate effectively in conversations. If a speaker goes on for too long, the listener will find themselves thinking about how to interrupt, or even lose interest altogether. We can also get distracted if we’re multitasking—reading emails, looking at our phone. Anything that requires higher-level thought than walking and listening will degrade our ability to process and reply meaningfully.

“We need to stop being distracted by our own thoughts—what I call ‘silently talking in our head.’”

But perhaps the biggest problem is that we’ve been taught listening strategies that aren’t really about listening. In most cases, in fact, they’re about how to “fake listen”—nodding when someone’s speaking, looking interested, or repeating what we’ve just heard. But, as journalist Celeste Headlee says, “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.”

So how do we become great listeners?

First, we have to recognize the importance and meaning of listening—which is fundamentally about understanding another person’s perspective. You can’t lead a conversation, let alone a team or a company, without being able to hear people.

Listening with comprehension is about learning to hear the whole story and get its meaning. In a sense, it’s comparable to how we process and understand the written word. Here’s one road map to listening with comprehension:

Quiet our mind so we can concentrate on the speaker. If we are struggling with distractions and can’t focus, we need to stop the speaker and ask them to repeat themselves so that we can get ourselves back on track.

Be active, not passive. As we listen to the speaker, we should ask questions to clarify their point, repeat back what we are hearing if we are confused, and make sure we are following the meaning. But don’t interrupt unnecessarily. Allow the speaker to get to their point; sometimes they’ll answer our questions organically, without prompting.

Listen patiently. When you’re skilled at comprehensive listening, you can let someone talk for a while and really enjoy their story. You won’t be judging or simply waiting to speak. And with heightened focus, you’ll also find that your questions are relevant and easier to remember.

Listening takes practice, but it pays big dividends. It not only connects you to people and helps you understand them, it improves efficiency and processing. With great listening skills, the point is not lost in translation. People feel understood and connected. Communication is greatly improved, which affects work flow across the board—goals, deadlines, objectives, speed, and problem-solving.


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