The art of listening

Tim, a senior manager, was chairing a meeting on a work matter that needed immediate resolution and the support of his team. He talked, and talked and talked, explaining over and over and over what he thought. When the meeting finally ended, Tim didn’t feel he had a solution, and he knew he didn’t have buy-in from his team.

What went wrong?

Tim didn’t win because he wasn’t interested in listening—except to himself. He didn’t understand that communication is a two-way street designed to build understanding. It’s not ‘information’, which is a one-way flow out, something Tim excels at.

It sounds bizarre, but listening isn’t an innate human skill. It’s a skill we need to learn, especially leaders in the workplace. Indeed, listening is a core competency in the Australian Public Service and it’s a core competency for the International Coach Federation, and for good reason.

The reality is that if you have two ears that function well, you automatically hear. But that doesn’t make you an active listener.

The art of listening (and learning as a result) is so important that an international association dedicates itself to the topic. The International Association of Listening—yes there is such a body—was established in 1979 and now works in more than 19 countries.

The Association wholeheartedly supports what author Ralph G. Nichols, says: ‘The most basic of human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.’ Ralph should know. He has authored Are you listening?

Listening, especially when you disagree, is a powerful skill that Dr Kim Vella, executive career coach, concentrates on in her workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions.

‘It’s an essential core competency in the professional world,’ says Kim, ‘and one that many don’t excel at. The reality is that listening is an art and it can be hugely rewarding on so many levels.’

What makes listening so challenging? What barriers do we need to cross so we master the art of listening?

During an ABC radio interview, a representative of the International Association of Listening explained that part of the problem is we aren’t taught this skill in school, like we are reading, writing, math and even public speaking. Listening, the Association argues, should be taught the same way.

Kim says we need to learn to tackle the barriers that stop many of us from listening. Here are the top ones Kim concentrates on when helping professionals build their listening skills.

We’re too busy

Quality listening takes time. We need to put on the breaks to listen. If you’re busy, busy, busy, chances are you think you’re listening, but instead you’re letting your mind wander. You may be planning how you’ll respond to the person talking or thinking about other things, like what you’re going to have for dinner. Kim’s teaches us how to stop, concentrate and get into the zone of listening.

We love talking about ourselves

Humans are driven by ego. So many of us would rather be doing the talking because we think that what we have to say is more interesting. We seize any pause in a conversation to dive in and share our own experience, instead of being inquisitive about the speaker’s experience. Kim teaches us how to be in the moment by breathing and reminding ourselves that listening isn’t about us. It’s about understanding others.

We’re too quick to assume

How many times have you finished another person’s sentence or watched someone else do the same? Bad listeners assume they know what another person is thinking and what they’re about to say. Bad listeners feel they have the right to interject. Kim teaches us that this isn’t always the case.

We have closed mindsets

It’s human nature to want everyone to think the way we think—we’re often close minded. Kim teaches us to open our minds, even when what is being discussed doesn’t match our own views. She teaches that it’s not healthy to only see life through your own lens … that setting aside your knowledge, expertise or feelings can open new ways of thinking and understanding.

We don’t know when to simply shut up

Poor listeners feel they have a right to babble on, giving advice (when not asked for) and steering the conversation back to their life. We also tend to feel we must respond to every point. Kim teaches us that we don’t and she teaches us that silence is truly golden.

‘There’s no doubt that genuine listening is a skill and a rewarding one to develop,’ says Kim. ‘It’s enriching when we learn to pause and concentrate on others instead of ourselves. This is part of emotional intelligence and it will put you ahead of the game.’

Want to learn more?

  1. Take one of Kim’s inspirational workshops. They’re 100% guaranteed to give you the skills and tools you need to be a better leader, no matter what level you’re operating at:
  2. Register for a free, 30-minute coaching session with Kim.
  3. Read other articles by Kim:

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