THE BLOG

Listen Well - It's an Active Exercise!

07/09/2014 01:19 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2014

In her book My Life in Leadership, Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, and one of the greatest leaders I've ever met, wrote one of the best descriptions of listening and leadership I've ever read:

"Listening is an art. When people are speaking, they require our undivided attention. We focus on them; we listen very carefully. We listen to the spoken words and the unspoken messages. This means looking directly at the person, eyes connected; we forget we have a watch, just focusing for that moment on that person. It's called respect, it's called appreciation - and it's called leadership."

Let's explore this art of listening a bit further. Did you know that 80 percent of our success in learning from other people is based on how well we listen? In other words, our success or failure is determined before we do anything. What escapes most people is they think listening is passive. They think they are supposed to just sit there and "hear someone out." If you re-read Frances' description, you'll notice there is nothing passive about it. It is active and powerful. Good listeners know this. They regard listening as a highly active process.

So what do good (active) listeners do? In essence they do three things: They think before they speak; they listen with respect; and they are always gauging their response by asking themselves, "Is it [responding] worth it?"

  1. Think before you speak: What do most of us do when we're upset? We talk. When we're confused, surprised, shocked? Talk. However, listening is a two-part process. During one part, we listen. During the other, we speak. What we say is proof of how well we've listened.
  2. Listen with respect: To learn from people you have to listen to them with respect. This means engaging the speaker with your eye contact and body language, showing that you are interested in what they are saying, so that you can keep learning from what they are saying.
  3. Ask yourself, "Is it worth it?": Listening also requires answering this difficult question before you speak. A good way to make sense of this question is to realize that you are in effect taking the age-old question of self-interest, "What's in it for me?" one step further and asking, "What's in it for her?"

You've heard me say it many times over, this is pretty simple stuff, but it's not easy. If you try listening actively and with respect you'll be amazed at how much better things get. So many of our interpersonal problems at work stem from not listening and not thinking before we speak. You say something - I get mad. I lash out, and within seconds we have a crisis of miscommunication on our hands that can stop teams, departments, and organizations from functioning well. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the weather or the latest techie gadget, the content is totally irrelevant. What matters is how easily we can slip into small behavioral patterns that create friction in the workplace--and how just as easily we can assume behavioral patterns that don't create friction. Really, it's up to us. We can choose to practice simple disciplines like thinking before speaking, listening with respect, and asking "Is it worth it?" at work. It's not that difficult, we just need to do it.

For those of you who want to change for the better in this area, try to do the following techniques during your next interpersonal encounter. Keep practicing. You will reap amazing benefits!

  • Listen.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Don't finish the other person's sentences.
  • Don't say, "I knew that."
  • Don't even agree with the other person. Even if he praises you, just say, "Thank you!"
  • Don't use the words, "no," "but," and "however."
  • Don't be distracted. Don't let your eyes or attention wander elsewhere while the other person is talking.
  • Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that a) show you're paying attention, b) move the conversation forward, and c) require the other person to talk (while you listen).
  • Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart or funny you are. Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is accomplishing that.

Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next short video in the series Leadership Is a Contact Sport: Listen accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015).