by Edward D. Hess, author of “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization“
Today, it seems “busyness” is the measure of success. We power through our emails, conference calls, and business lunches at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, all this frantic activity has taken a toll on our patience. The result is that we no longer stop to listen to one another—how can we when we’re all so busy and important? The trouble is that the ability that’s getting lost in the shuffle is the very one MUST HAVE to be a viable player in today’s workforce — the ability to truly listen.
It used to be that the smartest guy in the room was the one who was constantly talking. Not anymore. Now, the smartest guy or gal in the room is the one who asks the right questions and then truly listens to what others have to say.
In other words, the ability to truly listen is the most important 21st century job skill. As I explained in my book “Learn or Die“, it’s the core skill needed for the critical thinking, innovative thinking, collaboration, and real-time diagnosis and problem solving that only humans can do. And that’s important because it allows you to stay employed as technology takes over more and more jobs that people used to perform.
Whether you have a ‘blue-collar’ or a ‘white-collar’ job, the result is the same. If what you do can be transformed into a software algorithm, technology will be able to do it faster and better than you. What technology won’t be able to do in the near future is think critically and innovatively and emotionally relate to other humans. These abilities all require open-minded, non-judgmental, and non-defensive listening.
Unfortunately, many of us are terrible listeners who’ve picked up bad habits in order to stay afloat in today’s fast-paced business environment. Read on to learn more about our worst listening habits and what can be done to fix them:
1. Thinking about your response before the speaker is finished.
Most of us operate on autopilot much of the time. Our natural way of thinking is to confirm what we already believe, while our knee-jerk emotional reaction to new information is to engage in the three “Ds”: to deny, defend, and deflect in order to protect our egos. When it comes to listening, here too our natural tendency is to confirm and defend; we focus more on ourselves than the person with whom we are speaking.
Before the conversation begins, put yourself in a listening frame of mind with calmed emotions and a quiet ego. Listening requires concentration: Be present, in the moment, with an open mind. Take two minutes to get into the right frame of mind by taking some deep breaths and saying to yourself, Listening is not about me and Slow down. Don’t rush to conclusions. Seek to understand.
2. Finishing the speaker’s sentence out loud or in your head.
Today, we live in a constant state of “on to the next thing.” Our schedules are jam-packed, and as a result, we slip into survival mode, trying to move things along as quickly as possible, regardless of how important the interaction is. We stop listening and instead finish our conversation partner’s sentences in our heads. Of course, the downside is we don’t always get it right.
Again, we humans prefer to simply confirm what we already think. And trying to complete someone’s sentences is one way of doing that. We start to think, Well, I’ve heard this a thousand times before. I know what he’s going to say. And then we zone out. But you will miss important details when you allow yourself to do this. Good listeners are people who actively listen with the goal of truly trying to understand what the other person is saying. Only after understanding and reflecting does a good listener thoughtfully respond. Be aware that you’re making assumptions and inferences. And fight it by using exploratory questions to gain a deeper understanding of what the person is saying.
3. Interrupting the speaker.
When I was in school I would wave my hand ferociously while my teacher was still talking. I’d wave so ferociously that eventually she’d stop talking just to call on me. I learned to interrupt my teachers in order to be the first to give the right answer. It was my way of showing others how smart I was.
Of course, we interrupt one another for a lot of reasons. But many of them can be boiled down to our need to show how smart we are. Either we’re interrupting to correct the speaker or we’re interrupting to get to a key point before the speaker can. I had to work hard to change my behavior. I learned that others would not think less of me if I listened, waited until they were through talking, and reflected on what they said before responding. To the contrary, by listening, inquiring, and reflecting before responding, people saw that I respected them by listening. That made my meetings more productive and my relationships stronger.
4. Letting your mind wander to think about something you think is more important.
Multitasking has become a way of life for many of today’s professionals. But more and more studies are showing just how ineffective and unproductive multitasking makes us. So, remember that the next time you’re trying to think through one problem while you’re in a conversation about another one.
Go slow and reflect. Intentionally think about what the other person is saying. Do you really understand? What did he or she really mean? Ask her if what you believe you heard is what she meant. Listening is not a competitive process; it is a relational one. It requires exploring another’s thinking with an open mind.
5. Interpreting the speaker’s message in a way that makes you feel comfortable or smart.
Remember the three Ds — deny, defend, and deflect. Here again, they rear their ugly head. Good listening is not about you — it is about the speaker and trying to understand and relate to him or her.
Let me reiterate. Listening is not about YOU! It is not a competition. It is not about you showing how smart you are. It is not about you winning. And in fact, when you do make it about you, I think you’ll find you achieve the opposite. Instead of people thinking you’re smart, they think you’re rude, inconsiderate, and pompous. Listening is about you showing you care enough about the speaker to focus on trying to understand his or her view or situation.
6. Offering advice before being asked.
You might try to convince yourself that giving other people advice is a great way to show that you’ve heard them out and want to help them. But deep down you know that’s not true. Giving advice is really another way for you to validate your own opinions and make yourself feel smart.
Maybe you think that a colleague or friend is sharing a story with you precisely because they want your advice. Well, that might be the case, but chances are what they need more is for someone to hear them out, to truly listen to what they have to say. Never, ever offer advice before being asked.
7. Sharing your own experience before fully exploring the speaker’s experience.
Your experiences are your experiences. They do not match up to everyone’s reality. And in fact, in many cases, your view of the world will not even be accurate. It will be skewed by your preconceived notions and everything that you don’t know that you don’t know.
This is another situation where well-timed questions will serve you much better than talking over someone or trying to interject your way into the conversation. An effective rule to follow for breaking this habit is to always inquire before advocating and to always inquire much more than you advocate.
8. Defending yourself when receiving feedback.
In my book I wrote about “Mr. Feedback,” one of my early mentors. Mr. Feedback taught me how essential negative feedback is if you want to become the best in your field and the importance of pausing and reflecting rather than automatically defending, deflecting, or denying when you receive negative feedback. As I moved forward in my career, I realized how difficult it can be to get this kind of constructive feedback.
Rather than getting the kind of specific, constructive feedback that can help us improve our skills, most of us will receive guarded or politically correct feedback that is fairly useless in practice. Thoughtful and constructive feedback is a valuable thing, especially when you can foster your mindset to absorb and not deflect it, and it will only become more valuable as our workplaces become dominated by technology.
9. Critiquing the speaker instead of their idea.
Here’s another reaction we use to try to make ourselves look smarter rather than give the other person their moment in the sun. By critiquing a speaker instead of their idea, we’re really seeking to discredit them in order to invalidate their idea — hoping our own idea will, then, rise to the top. Of course, this can also be a natural defensive reaction. If someone disagrees with us, we attack them to try to even the playing field. But it’s important that you always critique the idea, not the person giving it. Listening in a business context should focus on the merit of the idea and the credibility of the data provided to support it. The person presenting the idea should never be on trial.
Learning to listen well takes practice — lots of practice. Grade yourself daily. Hold yourself accountable. If you are stuck on a bad behavior, seek out a good friend and ask them to help you uncover why you are having difficulty changing. When you work hard to improve your listening skills, you’ll become a better collaborator — a necessary skill for critical and innovative thinking and being successful in the 21st century.
Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of 11 books, including “The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes“ and “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization“.