It appears I’ve reached a milestone of sorts. When thinking of what I wanted to write about today I realized that I can’t remember whether I’ve written about it before or not. It is entirely possible that I’m about to repeat myself at length! Still, that’s a pretty good feeling. I’ve reached the 6 month mark for this blog. I’ve even maintained a decent level of consistency if you throw out a slow March. I’m looking forward to what the next 6 months brings.

Today I want to talk about listening. This may very well be the most underrated skill that a person can possess. Not just in a business sense either. Good listening skills are as valuable in the living room as they are in the meeting room. It’s funny to think that we all have the tools to be a good listener, yet good listening skills are very rare. In this article I’ll talk a little bit about the difference between hearing and listening. Then I’ll dig in to listening at home and listening at work.

Hearing is not listening, and listening is not hearing. It’s important to understand that up front. Let me give an example. Sometimes my wife will begin talking to me when I’m engrossed in a book. If I continue to keep my attention on the book I will hear her voice but I won’t be paying attention. I know she’s talking, I can hear the sounds. But if I’m not paying attention to it then I’m not listening. That’s the rudimentary difference between the two. The dangerous part of this kind of situation (for me) is that I’ll hear just enough of what my wife is saying to respond in a way that makes her believe that I’m actually listening. Bad move gentlemen. I’ll have to deal with the consequences of this later on when I’ve failed to take the trash out or whatever other request was communicated during my fake listening session.

I shouldn’t stereotype. I imagine there are just as many women who do this to their men while watching television. It’s an unfortunate behavior. If it happens regularly the person doing the talking will start feeling frustrated and underappreciated. The home front is one of the first places that bad listening skills can have a big impact on our lives. This is a two way street. It’s not just our own bad listening that is problematic. Our family members’ poor listening skills also make life a greater struggle than it needs to be.

If you think I’m describing you I am happy to say that this isn’t one of those really hard things to change. Here’s the trick. When you hear your friend or loved one talking to you it’s time to tune out the book or television or whatever has your attention and focus on them for a little bit. In today’s world of IPads and smart phones we are faced with more distractions than ever. In order to become a better listener we need get familiar with making the conscious decision to step away from our devices and focus on the human in front of us. We need to practice this. I believe that our young people struggle with this even worse than my generation does. They’ve grown up with technology and it seems completely natural for it to play a large role in their life. How much harder is it for that young person to put down their device and listen, and what is it doing to their day to day listening skills when they don’t do so.

I feel like I’m surrounded by this on a daily basis. Has anybody else had to become very precise with their orders at restaurants like Subway and Moe’s? I’ve started specifying the exact number of jalapeño’s and pickles that I want on my sandwiches because these young employees aren’t listening closely enough to know whether I asked for a lot of something or a little. I know these aren’t highly paid positions but my overall satisfaction level with the given restaurant is dramatically impacted by these things.

Interestingly, my experience tells me that listening skills aren’t much better in the population of highly skilled employees who get paid much more than our friends in the restaurant business. The behavior is similar but their appears to be a different reason behind it. With younger, lower paid individuals the determining factor in their ability to listen seems to be their propensity to care. When you deal with someone who cares you can tell that they are engaged and they are listening to you. The majority of the ones who do not listen look like they don’t care anything about you, the company they work for or their jobs. On the other hand, the primary factor in a skilled worker’s ability to listen seems to be a combination of ego and time.

I think time is the more obvious of the two. Skilled people are typically in high demand and tend to have more responsibilities than less skilled employees. Since they are in high demand they are typically trying to keep your transaction as short as possible so they can move on to the next situation. As a result these people will jump to conclusions based on a very limited set of information to try and move on as soon as you look in the other direction. The problem is that information is not always presented in order of greatest to least impact. In fact, it’s typically presented in a more sequential fashion. Those workers who don’t listen to an entire message and rush through things will invariably make more mistakes than their more patient co-workers.

The end result is the same when these skilled workers fail to listen due to ego. The difference is actually internal. It’s based on the employee’s personal belief that they know more than the person that they are dealing with. As a result, they devalue the communication coming from that person and jump to conclusions that are based on expectations rather than facts. To make it worse, many times their self-worth is tied up in how much they know. As a result they are likely to jump to conclusions even more quickly to impress the people they are working with and are less likely to receive the feedback that they are incorrect in their assumptions.

Poor listening skills like the ones I’ve described cost companies millions of dollars each year. Poor listening is one of the banes of any good leader in detail oriented areas like corporate finance and IT but it is continually under addressed. The answer is always to bring in more technically skilled or smarter individuals. It’s almost comical. This need isn’t met by a higher level of specialization. In many cases the departments would be more successful with less specialized people who make less money but are good at listening and communicating.

So, let me bring it back around to you. I already made the case that good listening skills can have a positive influence on your personal relationships. They can have just as big an impact on your success in business. The business world is going through a change right now. People are moving away from dictatorships and unilateral decision-making. There is a greater focus on the value of emotional intelligence and teamwork. As businesses continue moving in this direction we will see listening skills continue to grow in importance.

My current job is a great example. I earned my degree in communications and public relations. My passion is leadership and strategy. Yet I find myself working in the world of IT. Is this because of how good I am with techie stuff? Not hardly. The purpose of my job is to act as a translator and middle man between IT and the business areas. Guess what stands out as one of the most important skills in my job? That’s right, listening. With good listening skills I can help a customer who’s been banging their head against a brick wall find a door and walk right through.

I believe that good listening skills can make your life happier at home and more productive at work. It starts by choosing what you want to listen to. Is that next Facebook comment as important as your spouse? No. Once you find yourself listening well you’ll need to watch out for other pitfalls like time and ego. Remember not to rush people and remember that you don’t know what they are going to say until they’ve said it. You’ll be able to get out of your own head and focus back on them like you should be.

I hope this is helpful. Until next time – Be Blessed.


Posted on May 15, 2011, in Personal Development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Chris Hollister

    Listening skills are some of the toughest to manage. This is something that is not fixed over night. Listening skills when master will complete your life all the way around. Most of the time all people want to have done is be listened to. People now a days are listening starved.

    Great article JO. Keep going with this blog.

  1. Pingback: People and Contacts « Authentic Voice

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