You're Not Listening
"You can't fake listening. It shows." Raquel Welch
Renowned leaders are also often hailed as classic orators of their time. Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., and Margaret Thatcher come to mind. The great storytellers, quite fittingly are known for their way with the written word. Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, and William Shakespeare, are a few examples. Spiritual leaders through time, have transcended by their acts of compassion. Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Jesus Christ. Political leaders a plenty have permanently etched there names in the history by taking a stance which challenged authority, or was viewed as unpopular: Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Abraham Lincoln.
The annals of time will forever celebrate the inspirationally eloquent, and the emotionally transformative and the courageously defiant, but when was the last time you heard the phrase, “one of the world’s great listeners”? But not to worry, listeners, the best listeners by definition have little interest in fame. They are literally wired for sound – mostly from the voices of others, but also from random audio present in the environment at any given time. Listeners, after all, don’t just listen intently to voices directed their way. They hear things others do not.
Communication is one of the 8 Pillar Competencies featured in my book, “The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human”, but it is most often thought of in terms of the written and spoken forms, whereas research will assert – listening is perhaps the most important component of a well-rounded communication competency.
Frighteningly, like all 8 pillar competencies, communication is challenged a great deal in modern life. And the listening part of communication has been in a virtual chokehold since the digitization of our lives, and the vice-grip has subsequently intensified since the start of the global pandemic. The “noise” produced by social media alone can render the senses useless with prolonged exposure. And here I’m talking about noise in a metaphorical sense, although if you’ve ever had your phone speaker on while scrolling through an Instagram feed, I defy you to refrain from muting it within seconds. That omni-present device in your pocket is a barricade to listening. And because it’s in your pocket, purse, or within arm’s reach, tempting you with no end of distraction – that ultimate communications tool, is ironically, your greatest listening barrier.
But even if we can put aside our digital distractions – physically and figuratively – listening requires cognitive effort. We’ve been conditioned and trained to make eye contact, for instance, with those speaking to us. But eye contact alone, if used only to veil our hidden distraction toward other thoughts, is honestly wasted energy. You might as well be staring at your screen if you’re staring blankly at someone speaking with you, as they pour out their soul. Thus intentional eye contact is required. However, even if we can bring ourselves into the zone of consciousness with another person, we still have more work to do.
Here, we see the interdependence with some of the other pillar competencies. We must engage our critical thinking, to eliminate our biases, allowing all incoming information in. And we must switch on curiosity to literally, will ourselves to learn from that information. Edgar Schien calls this “genuine curiosity”, noting that we must assume a certain “mental posture”. (Baker et al, 2019) Freud, in fact, weighed in on this concept as well. Sigmund said we must adopt an “even hovering attention”, which he clarified as a balance between being focussed in a way that achieves a certain equilibrium between over-focussing (too much on the wrong details) and under-focussing (too little attention being paid period). (Baker et al, 2019)
Who are the great listeners in your life? Pause here, and make note of who they are, and think about how you evaluate them as such. Eventually, you’ll come to the conclusion that somehow, they get you. So achieving empathy is a key indicator of effective listening. Chances are they also pick up on what you don’t say, because they sense what you’re feeling as well as what you’re saying. And they notice the details. Their ability to absorb, interpret, calculate, and extract from what you’ve said, seem somehow superhuman. “How did you do that?” you might ask rhetorically, in wonderment of their processing ability, but possibly too, out of amazement that they actually were listening that intently.
How effective are you at listening? Are you able to mentally wall out the thoughts orbiting around outside and inside your head? Does it even register, that when someone talks to you, that they are demonstrating an actual human need to be heard, and what comes with that is a responsibility on you to somehow satisfy that need? Suddenly this listening stuff is sounding like a lot of hard work. It is, but it needn’t be seen that way, if you look at it as simply another way of practicing your human competencies, and as a part of your journey to being better at being human.
The full framework of competency based learning (CBL) is essential to grow as a listener. The framework is a three-part system, symbolized throughout the book as a Venn diagram, with the circles representing Attitude, Knowledge and Skill – the AKS model.
The upper, and first logical component of the system is Attitude, simply meaning, that there is a mindset for learning vital to your competency practice. You must want to learn. Indeed, one of the most often used phrases accompanying CBL is “learning to learn”. So, if it isn’t the right time to learn to listen better, or if you don’t believe you have any room to improve your listening competency, head to the back of the line. This is a non-starter. Adopting the appropriate attitude is merely a mental check. There’s no written component necessary, although writing down your frame of mind, and what it is specifically you wish to learn, is a good way to shake out the cobwebs before moving next to the bottom left circle – Knowledge.
Providing that you have been real enough with yourself to know in your heart that you are open and ready to learn, the knowledge component can begin. This is where things can slow to a crawl. Here you may realize that the pact you made in the Attitude setting phase, was, perhaps an exaggeration of your patience. You seemed willing to learn, but only if it could be done in the next five minutes. Learning about listening, as well as how to become better at it, can literally take weeks, and even then, as dictated by one of the tenets of competency based learning, you never reach mastery. You only become more competent. So, what do I suggest for becoming wiser, smarter, more knowledgeable in the art of listening? I would suggest some reading, of course. Perhaps starting with just that – “The Lost Art of Listening” by Michael Nichols. The author enlightens readers not only on ways to listen better, but why even the tiniest details matter – in ways that might surprise you. For instance, he asserts that good listeners are neither judges nor re-affirmers, but rather, they are witnesses. (Nichols, 2009) It’s true, so many of us feel that in order to prove we’re listening, we have to take a side in a conflict a person is having internally. We need to talk them into or out of something. We need to render some sort of decision. But that’s not the job of the listener. That is not L-I-S-T-E-N-I-N-G.
Kate Murphy puts the value of listening best in her book, “You’re Not Listening to Me”. She says, “listening plugs you into life”, and that you learn more about yourself, as well as the person speaking, simply by listening, seeking to understand and interpreting. (Murphy, 2020) Ironically, as suggested earlier on, we need to unplug from the lives in which we find ourselves living – digital – and then re-plug into the lives we cannot remember, when the digital distractions weren’t a part of us. Kate also makes a case for how listening helps create synergies, which in turn produce magic, and she points to famous teams – John Lennon and Paul McCartney for example - that would have been hard to produce if not for their participants alternating between speaking and listening (2020).
Books about effective listening are aplenty, but that’s where I would start. Google it. You’ll find a summer’s worth of fabulous examples to bring to the beach, pool, park bench, or just your front porch. The knowledge phase of the competency framework is going to take some time. So permit it to happen.
The Skill phase finally closes out the deal, IF you have put in the time, with the right attitude. This is where you demonstrate both, how much knowledge you picked up as well as how you are able to apply it. The word “skill” is forever, and frustratingly, being used synonymously with the word competency. It is a correction I continue to make to people who use them interchangeably, because, as important as a skill is, it is one third of the system which comprises a competency. You cannot get to the point of demonstrating a skill, until you’ve put in the time learning, while maintaining the right attitude. Skill is where you get the reps in. But don’t expect to feel great about the first time you attempt to perform a new skill, like a new listening activity, for the first time. The aforementioned books provide excellent rationale and activities to develop the listening part of your communication competency. But if I may say so myself, “The Daily Undoing” workbook provides several efficient exercises as well. In fact, it is the first of the communication competency exercises I hit on, a mere 5 pages in. Here’s what that page looks like.
The written insight and action is then followed by a large space featuring only the AKS Venn diagram in which to notate, doodle and scribble your thoughts, in essence planning out how you might carry out the action. If, by the way, you like bite-sized chunks of learning, and immediate activation, then the book might be another reasonable companion for your summer reading as well (wink).
Speaking of summer, it begins this Sunday, June 20, which also happens to be Father’s Day. Here I'm compelled to reiterate something I say each time I speak about my book, my journey, and my obsession with the 8 pillar competencies. I am neither your guru, your coach, nor your judge on this topic. I am your humble tour guide trundling through all of these learnings myself, and letting my awakening of my own competencies ignite new growth opportunities. To put another way, I continue to nurture my own competencies and experience the cathartic effects of learning to learn. Thus, as an example, you can bet, that the weeks leading up to this Father’s Day, and forever after, I am challenging myself to listen more intently to my kids and my wife. Their dignity, self-esteem and self-respect deserve this from me.
Having made this declaration, I realize there will be times when I will succumb to laziness. I’ll nod or murmur something in the hope that they’ll think I’m listening (even though I'm not). Or I’ll take a sideways glance at my phone, hoping they won’t notice my lack of intention. But my pact this Father’s Day is to be strive, going forward, to be a dad of two incredible daughters who have incredible stories to tell, hopes to share, and troubles to navigate. I can’t let those fall on deaf ears.
If you have kids, hopefully you’ll come along with me on this challenge. If you don’t, there are plenty of other people to whom you can extend your gift of listening, and from which, rich rewards await both you and the person who has entrusted your with their thoughts. There are endless practice sessions awaiting your authentic attention. Listen to customers. Listen to employees. Listen to friends, family and colleagues. Listen to the mistreated (I’m personally seeking these opportunities too).
Most of all, just listen.