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Active Listening: An Intelligence of True Leaders

Are you listening or hearing?

Listening, when we hear the term listen, we all, in some way, feel like we have mastered this concept. We have ears, so we understand. People talk, and we listen. Listening is key to communication, yes, but not everyone has mastered the art of listening.

Top executives of a primary manufacturing plant in Chicago were surveyed and asked this question, “What role does active listening play in your work?” Listening? They then took part in a listening seminar. Here were some of their thoughts.

  • “Frankly, I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or someone else listening to me.”

  • “I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that many of the troubles have resulted from someone not hearing something, or getting it in a distorted way.”

  • “It’s interesting that we have considered so many facets of communication in the company, but have inadvertently overlooked listening. I’ve about decided that it’s the most important link in the company’s communications, and it’s also the weakest one.”

We all agree that listening is an essential part of communication, but have we considered how communication systems tie the business itself? For a little over a year now we have worked on a concept called Value Stream Mapping, this is a material and information flow mapping processes that help us figure out the current state of a process and helps us design the future state. If a series of events that takes a product or our service from the beginning to the end. The system will not work if communication was absent; this is why processes exist; they help communicate expectations and who are needed to make things move. In all critical means, communication is more than the written and the spoken words of a process, but the effectiveness of how it is received, comprehended, and how we listen.

It can be said that generally, people do not know how to listen. We have the tools to do so, but this doesn’t qualify the aural proficiency to use them effectively, this is what we call listening. For several years, many have tested people’s ability to understand and remember what they hear; in training, we learn that people only remember 25% of what is said. After we have barely learned something, we tend to forget one-half to one-third of it  within eight hours;  it is startling to realize that we often forget more in this first short than we do in six months.

So, where is the gap?

Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. As a result, communication breaks down, and the sender and the receiver can quickly become frustrated or irritated. Listening takes effort. Listening is not the same as hearing, just as Telling is not the same as Teaching. Listening requires focus and a concentrated effort, kicking in both mental and sometimes a physical effort while hearing requires energy that occurs automatically.

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The phrase ‘active listening’ is described as the process of being fully involved. Listening means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages and paying attention not only to the story but also the use of language, non-verbal cues, and voice. Our ability to listen effectively depends on how we perceive and understand these messages. Listening is not a passive process. The listener can, and should, be at least as engaged in the process as the speaker. We need better communication in every facet of the business, life, relationships, and more. Listening is required for useful feedback to happen. The skill of listening becomes extremely important when we talk about “upward communication.” There are many avenues through which management can send messages downward through a business organization, but there are few avenues for the movement of information in the upward direction. Perhaps the most obvious of the upward channels within listening is the human chain of people talking to people. Without good listeners, people do not speak freely, and the flow of communication is seldom set in motion.

Stop Talking,  when some are talking, listen, practice not interrupting, or have a response ready before they finish their sentence. If you aren’t sure what is being said, ask to follow up questions.

Prepare yourself to listen.  I am a social person and very expressive; to master active listening, we need to focus on the speaker. Relax, put other things out of your mind, and concentrate on the message.

Empathize,  there is an art in trying to understand another person’s viewpoint. Look at issues from another perspective. Let go of preconceived ideas. By having an open mind, we can more fully empathize with the speaker. If the speaker says something that you disagree with, then wait and construct an argument to counter what is said while keeping an open mind to others’ views and opinions.

Be patient; this  can be hard; I know! A pause, even a long hiatus, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished. Some people need time to formulate what to say and how to say it.

Avoid Personal Prejudice . Don’t become irritated, and don’t let the person’s habits or mannerisms distract you from what the speaker is saying. Long-winded talkers, out loud thinkers, and silent ponders are all critical. Focus on what is being said and try to ignore the styles of delivery.

Listen to the tone.  When we talk, we will use both volume and tone to our advantage to keep an audience attentive, or when communication is backed with emotion, our tone will adjust naturally. Everybody will use pitch, tone, and volume of voice in certain situations – let these help you to understand the emphasis of what is being said as you listen.

Listen for Ideas – Not Just Words.  Another factor that affects listening ability concerns the reconstruction of orally communicated thoughts once the listener has received them. For some reason, many people take great pride in being able to say that, above all, they try to “get the facts” when they listen. It seems logical enough to do so. If a person gets all the facts, he should certainly understand what is said to him. Therefore, many people try to memorize every single point that is spoken. With such practice at “getting the facts,” the listener, we can safely assume, will develop a severely lousy listening habit.

You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces. Maybe one of the most challenging aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal others’ ideas. With proper concentration, letting go of distractions, and focus, this becomes easier.

People in all phases of business need to feel free to talk to their leaders and know that they will be met with sympathetic understanding. Popular headlines state that too many leaders—although they announce that their doors are always open—fail to listen, and their team, in the face of this failure, do not feel free to say what they want to say. As a result, people withdraw from their leaders more and more. They fail to talk about significant problems that should be aired for both parties’ benefit. When such issues remain unaired, they often turn into unrealistic monsters that come back to hurt an organization and their leaders when they fail to listen.

Not all of these suggestions apply to every situation, of course. We will have to adapt them to each situation as it arises. However, the most critical thing may not be what happens when a specific suggestion is followed. However, instead, what happens when people become aware of the problem of listening, the benefits of what improved listening skills can do for their jobs and business overall. Effective and active listening makes up the right foundation of real intelligence in leadership.

Want more insight?

1. See E. J. J. Kramar and Thomas B. Lewis, “Comparison of Visual and Nonvisual Listening,” Journal of Communication, November 1951, p. 16; and Arthur W. Heilman, “An Investigation in Measuring and Improving Listening Ability of College Freshmen,” Speech Monographs, November 1951, p. 308.

2. See Wendell Johnson, “The Fateful Process of Mr. A Talking to Mr. B,” HBR January–February 1953, p. 49.

3. See George W. Gibson, “The Filmed Case in Management Training,” HBR May–June 1957, p. 123.

4. Brown-Carlsen Listening Comprehension Test (Yonkers-on-Hudson, World Book Company).

5. HBR January–February 1954, p. 39



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