The Zen of Listening



David O. Schwartz

IT’S A REALITY OF NATURE.  As we age,  our hearing weakens,  along with our eyesight… and, yes,  other body parts, too. Fortunately, we can offset physical weaknesses such as hearing loss, with improvements in other skill sets, such as enhanced listening.

The truth is, people at almost any age don’t know how to listen to one another. I see it all around me, especially in the business world, where it causes many problems  between co-workers as well as between managers and staff. Listening is an art form.  It has little to do with whether one is “the quiet sort” or “an expressive talker,” for an introvert can be a poor listener and an extrovert can be a good one.

Let me share a story about two senior members of an executive team. For the purposes of this anecdote, I will refer to the two associates as Will and Grace. Grace is the chief of operations and Will is the VP of marketing, reporting to Grace. Will has tendered notice that he has accepted an offer from a non-competitive company in a nearby city. He weighed his options and believes that in leaving he will finally gain the respect he deserves. Grace hates the thought of losing Will; she wants to keep him at all costs.  But she’s also a very cool, unemotional business person who rarely says more than she has to. Even though Will’s decision has been made, he and Grace agree (at my suggestion) to have dinner  to openly discuss his decision.

7:00 AM the next morning…  My cell phone rings, it’s Grace. Her voice is terse as she tells me of the three “wasted” hours she spent at dinner with Will. He’s still determined to leave, she says, sharing  some  “verbatim comments.”

8:30 AM. My office phone rings,  it’s Will. He thanks me for setting up the dinner but goes on to tell me that it’s crystal clear that Grace was actually pleased  he was leaving. Over the next  15 minutes he fills me in on some of the dialogue (I do not tell him that I’ve spoken with Grace).

How is it possible that two such bright and accomplished execs could spend so much time together and fail to communicate so drastically? I suspect each was filled with their own preconceptions about each other.  Will knew Grace was tough and pragmatic and did not expect her to care about his needs. For Grace’s part, she believed that Will was being driven by his own self-interest. Each felt  it was the other’s responsibility to unravel the mess. Both were wrong.

So I met with Grace and invited Will to join us. I gently shared examples of what was said and what was heard.  I asked them to try an experiment: I would leave them alone and each would tell the other what they were really hoping to accomplish, what they desired, and what they feared. They were instructed not to interrupt each other, and then restate—and recreate—what they had heard.

An hour later, Grace called to say that Will had decided to stay. He told Grace that he had a vision for his team that wasn’t being realized and he feared it would never come to be. His voice wasn’t being heard. Grace liked his vision and acknowledged that she hadn’t given him a real opportunity to share his ideas. She promised to support his ideas and be a better listener.

So what does it take to be a great listener?

  • First, you must be present, “there in the moment.” It takes discipline to pay attention.  Our own voice is blaring in our head—we want to interrupt, to jump in, and offer our counter thoughts.  We must fight that urge.
  • We need to pause and really understand what is being said. Is the speaker done?  Once he or she stops, it is good practice to repeat back, in your own words, what you have heard.  Ask if you have heard correctly. If so, then offer your own thoughts.
  • Make eye contact when you speak, as well as when you listen. Don’t answer your cell phone or office phone during the conversation.  (I used to be notoriously bad with this—driven by my sense of urgency, I felt compelled to pick up the phone when it rang and often ticked off people whose support I was seeking.)
  • Ask questions. This is a great way to ensure that you’re engaged in the conversation.  Frame your questions with phrases such as: “Help me understand” and “Could you explain that in more detail?” which create an interactive conversation, moving away from monologues. Ask someone to slow down and go over something they have said that you may have missed. In most cases, they will now find a new way to express their ideas and help build clarity.

Active listening is a skill that can be learned, and must be practiced. Your hearing may not improve in the years ahead, but your ability to listen can.

David O. Schwartz is President of Organizational Development Network Long Island, a licensed psychometrician, and certified Entrepreneurial Operating System implementer. He’s a graduate of the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. Contact:

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