All mouth and trousers, but what about the ears?

I never understood the whole ‘talk to the hand’ thing. I’ve learnt a lot of things by using my hands, but never by using them as a way of avoiding doing something more educational: listening. Even if you suspect you’re going to disagree with someone, your counter-argument is going to be stronger if you listen to theirs before you attempt to demolish it. Getting the response “Face? Bovvered?” is actually less annoying when the face belongs to someone whose ears were actually functioning in the preceding seconds. And let’s be honest here: if you want someone’s attention in the future, you’re more likely to get it if you give them yours in the meantime. As the Earl of Chesterfield once observed: “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” Neither are the perfect response, but a cold shoulder is warmer than a deaf ear.

Yet how often do we offer a deaf ear even when what we claim to be doing is wanting to hear something? Consider this example from Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor:

Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. He had read one of my early papers about disruptive technology, and he asked if I could talk to his direct reports and explain my research and what it implied for Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”

As the piece goes on to explain, Christensen persists and his audience is able not only to learn but also to do so by drawing their own conclusion – taking the learning on board and processing it rather than merely accepting a line to follow. But, at least in this telling, Andy Grove thought he would still have been doing all the listening he needed to do rather earlier in the process. Let’s hope the story does him an injustice, as it would be more inspiring to learn that a CEO didn’t simply want to be told what to think.

While we tend to realise that speech can be inspirational – perhaps because of our tendency to look for leadership behaviours to aspire to and be inspired by – it’s important to remember that listening can be equally invigorating. In its 2010 Report, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership (read our coverage), The Work Foundation highlighted listening as one of the defining skills of the outstanding (as opposed to merely good) leader. Here’s one of the anonymised quotes cited in the report:

So I [have] got this guy…. No-one listened to him, you know? He’s a very clever lad and he’s all over the place getting himself educated, but they thought he was lazy. But they didn’t listen you know. And all he wanted, he was bored and they weren’t stimulating him, giving him enough to do and so the worse he did, the less they gave him and it was a downhill slope all the time. I just keep giving him more and more and he’s never let me down.”

The sensation of ‘having a voice’ – ie one that is heard and that helps you feel that you are making a contribution – is one of the most critical factors in engagement and motivation. (The flipside is that ‘banging my head on the wall’ sensation that nearly all of us would have felt less often if the other party had actually been listening.) Give or take the backing music and the dress sense, a dialogue is like a tango: it takes two. For the employee to experience the sense of engagement and motivation, the manager has to listen.

As our anonymised contributor above had realised, the first step in tackling the situation really is listening. There’s a Stephen Covey quote that might be considered the managerial equivalent of ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The rush to judgement might be tempting, but listening is the skill required to gather the evidence that enables the conclusion to be leapt to. Nor is listening simply a ‘once only’ activity. As Robin Wright pointed out in an episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line series in late 2009, giving feedback is also about listening. When we wrote about that episode at the time, we made the point that feedback is a looping process – ‘Communicating, not broadcasting’ as we titled the piece.

Given the role of listening in sales – where, at least among the better practitioners, it is seen as common sense that the best way to find out what someone might be interested in buying is to ask them what they want or need and then listen to them – its importance in more metaphorical aspects of selling (managing, supervising, persuading, initiating, leading change) should be equally obvious, though that is not always the case. Listening is not just hearing: it involves paying closer attention, processing what is heard into understanding – and into questions that can be asked to deepen and clarify that understanding.

Asking questions is one way to practice, and one that – like feedback – encourages communication to become a dialogue. If you find yourself merely hearing, remember the words of Igor Stravinsky:

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

That open palm that many of us find ourselves talking to – metaphorically or literally – from time to time is meant to silence, but its impact is ultimately to isolate. Not just the person being silenced, but also the person doing the silencing. Listening isn’t just something we do while we’re waiting for our turn to speak – which reducing the notions of dialogue, feedback and understanding to the level of the old joke about ‘How dare you fart in front of my wife?’.

Listening is something we do so that when our turn comes to speak – if speaking is even appropriate – we do so from a better-informed standpoint. And what we say is not simply ‘our turn’, but a fully fledged response. To quote from a fine article in the December 2011 edition of Training Journal:

Quality listening involves us momentarily stepping out of our own frame of reference and into that of another. It involves us acknowledging and affirming another. It requires us to see and experience someone other than ourselves.”

Try the ‘talk to the hand’ routine to often and what you wind up hearing may be little more than the sound of footsteps as they get further and further away. Which isn’t the learning experience it might have been.

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