[February 27, 2019] A few years ago, I attended a dinner to honor a good friend of mine who had just retired as our city coroner. As I made my way inside the restaurant to speak with as many folks as possible, I stopped to chat with our State’s U.S. Senator. As one of several politicians there, I was curious if my friend had talked to him about upcoming legislation affecting the medical profession. The Senator said, matter-of-factly, that he was there to talk, not to listen.
I learned a long time ago that politicians are often in the talk mode, not the listening mode. I decided to hear him out anyway. He spoke for several minutes about the special challenges of the state; budget priorities, pending legislation, and the internal drama of being an “important” member of society. In short, he talked about the stuff the average voter, like me, don’t care much about.
Leaders must know how to listen; they listen to understand. And that listening cannot be selective or corrupted by external or internal influences that we are all guilty of having. Leaders live in a high-tech, high-speed, high-stress world where communication can be difficult and frustrating. This reminded me of an article in Forbes magazine I had read that addressed some of the topics I wanted to write about today. It took me a little time on the Internet, but I found it (see link here).
The articles’ author, Nancy F. Clark, does a good job of giving us the classic means to good listening. And yes, everything she writes about is right on target. For example, she discusses that the listener should face the speaker, maintain eye contact, be attentive, keeping an open mind, ask questions only to ensure understanding, etc. I’m glad I was able to highlight her works here in my leadership blog.
“The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” – Carl Rogers, American psychologist
What Carl Rogers was getting at, was that one of the best ways for people to truly listen is by methodically summarizing what the other person has said. This allows the speaker to say whether they understand the summary and make changes/corrections to that summary. In this way, the listener is better able to understand (something very difficult to do), eliminates straw-man ideas, and it can help the speaker better articulate what they mean.
Leaders can listen and, of course, should do so with a practiced ear. But it takes effort and time; something leaders often fail at doing.