The case for why improving your listening skills leads to better human connections and better leadership.
Many friends and colleagues have asked me, “What’s been the hardest part of your transformation into coaching?” The answer is always the same: “I’ve had to learn how to listen. Not listen like I used to or how we all think we do every day. But truly become an active listener.”
On the surface, it doesn’t really seem like the biggest challenge one would face. In reality though, it’s bloody tough work. The table stakes for showing up in the coaching role is listening. Without it, there’s zero chance of being effective or in service of the person you are coaching. When I don’t show up as the coach I know I can be, it’s most often because I wasn’t listening at my best.
Additionally, I would offer that listening is umbilically tied to being a great leader. Leaders cannot lead effectively unless they have trusting relationship with those around them which are formed through listening. Leaders cannot make better decisions unless they understand and dig around for meaning and context through two-way conversation. Leaders cannot grow and develop their self-awareness and empathy unless they are willing to be active listeners of themselves and those around them.
Listening is the duct tape of human connection. It’s the active ingredient in trusting and bonded relationships. It’s the pathway to understanding. For all of us.
This recent CBC article brought a ton of insight and science behind why making human connection is so challenging in the Era of Zoom. No matter how practiced and disciplined we are in video communication, something is always missing. That something is the fundamental need to make authentic and purposeful human connection. It’s all the non-verbal cues and connectors that a screen simply cannot deliver for us.
So, what do we do with this inherent tension? We simply must work harder We have to change our ways and make up for this embedded deficit. And the best place to start is by committing to being better listeners.
The fact is active listening is a muscle we grow. In our attention-deficit world with a constant cacophony of noises, stories and distractions around us, we have a multiple forces pulling on us at all times from all directions. These forces compromise our innate human desire to deeply connect with others. Our presence and touchpoints with people are simply not enough. We must learn to listen, which becomes the unlock for us to be intentionally and wholly present and engaged with the people in our lives.
In the working context, when asked, “Who do you talk to about problems or concerns?” you likely have a good roll call of peers, workplace friends, or partners. The more pertinent and challenging question is, “Who really listens to you?”
That list might be harder to put together.
Journalist Kate Murphy dug around the topic of listening for years, and produced a game-changing book called You’re Not Listening. In the most entertaining and thoughtful way, Murphy exposes the “epidemic of not listening” that grips us today. The book provides a truckload of practical habits and practices that each of can (and must) put into action to become the listeners we can (and must) become.
Here’s one great example she offers: when we are engaged in conversation, we very often spend the vast majority of our time not actively listening, but worrying about or formulating our response to the person when it’s “our turn” to speak in the conversation. If it were a tennis match, we’ve positioned ourselves for hitting our backhand before the other player has even hit the ball. We’re wasting our brain capacity in a relational guessing game rather that doing what we need to do:
Take in information
Observe and process non-verbal cues
Reflect before we respond
The penny-drop moment for me as I devoured her book is that we cannot be fully “there” for those around us unless we are listening. Simply engaging through conversation is not enough. As Murphy states so starkly,
Talking without listening is like touching without being touched.
Listening makes us feel. It makes us fully human. It makes us better in all aspects of our lives.
Here’s some questions you can take away in your pursuit of becoming a better listener:
What does it do for me when someone is really listening to me?
When I’m engaged in conversation, how much am I listening and how much time am I formulating my responses?
What would being a better listener at work do for me and my team?
What intentional changes will you make to transform yourself into the listener you want to be?