Listening is the new talking

I was recently asked to put together a session to coach a group of senior executives to improve their communication skills. They are responsible for cascading important messages throughout their organisation and, it was felt, they could do with some support as often messages landed badly due to the way they were presented. The coaching session I suggested would cover all the main areas from body language and breath-control, to mastering content and speaking without notes. But what, I was asked, are the most difficult attributes to learn?

The first, as I’ve written before, is recognising that communication is a poor proxy for behaviour. If you say one thing and do another then don’t expect people to do what you say. This is something that corporate executives forget when they’re “communicating” their new set of values. But the other most difficult communication skill is learning to listen.

Listening is fast becoming a lost art. Conversations, whether during business meetings or dinner parties, are too often one-way exchanges of information. People rarely talk with each other; rather, they talk at each other when it’s their turn. Other people are so pleased with the sound of their own voice that they rarely, if ever, let the other person get a word in. When they do pause it is simply to reload. Being on transmit-only is endemic in the business world, with so-called leaders spending their time telling people what to do and what to think. The clichés of communication being a two-way activity and of using our one mouth and two ears in proportion tends to fall on, well, deaf ears. There are a number of reasons for this.

The first reason, it seems to me, is the sheer volume of noise in our everyday life. Rather than respond to this constant cacophony by being quiet, we seem, instead, to simply talk louder. Noise generates more noise. Look at the number of people on public transport and walking in the street who are on headphones. Their response to the general hullabaloo of the modern city is to replace it with other sounds. It’s a veritable arms race of discord.

The second reason is the speed at which we live our lives. Everything happens at such a breakneck pace that it affords little time to invest in listening. Slow listening is much more difficult than fast talking. Listening is hard work. It requires taking the trouble to want to be part of the narrative that is being shared. Real listening involves using not just one’s ears but one’s eyes and whole body. It is more than being merely interested. And real listening is more than hearing. Hearing is being aware of groups of words and sentences. Listening is an altogether deeper experience where sometimes the true meaning comes in the silence of words that remain unspoken.

The third reason that I think we’ve all become such poor listeners is due to a collective sense that we have to have a point of view. Our egos seem to need to constantly demonstrate their importance by having things to say. One organisation I know says that they don’t mind what you think, only that you have a view point. To be fair, they take that position as a way of encouraging dialogue. However, the collective egos of modern society demand that we all have views on the causes and the solution of everything from the Greek debt crisis, Ukraine, European migration, and every other micro and macro issue around.

The result is that our egos encourage us to talk and talk rather than stop and listen. When I catch myself pontificating on subjects beyond my ken I get a little tap on the shoulder from Wittgenstein reminding me that whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent. And my new muse is Montaigne, who said – and I think we could all benefit from having this as our motto – “Que sais-je?”

Stopping to listen brings enormous rewards. It also is an act of generosity, allowing people to tell their story. And it is always good to give the ego a dose of humility by reminding it that there is much to learn from other people. However, like all things that are worth doing, listening is a skill that requires practice. As the great Raquel Welch once said: “You can’t fake listening. It shows.”

Written by
Tim Johns, senior consultant