The Power of Listening: What It Means and Why It Matters

10/27/2016 08:30 pm ET

verb lis·ten \ˈli-sən\

Simple Definition of listen

· : to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc.

· —used to tell a person to listen to what you are saying

· : to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true

At its root, listening is the act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another person. But listening is also the most important ingredient for building strong leadership, healthy relationships, and thriving organizations. If you need proof, just think of a recent time when you felt like no one was listening. How did that make you feel? Did your engagement increase or decrease?

According to esteemed psychologist Carol Rogers, active listening is a specific communication skill, based on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, which involves giving free and undivided attention to the speaker. It is also the most effective agent for individual change and group development.

Listening as means to more effective organizational management isn’t a new concept – in fact, it’s a timeless value. In Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Habit 5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey points out that our education and socialization has placed an emphasis on teaching us how to communicate (e.g. read, write, and speak), but doesn’t prepare us to really listen to what others are saying. He outlines some common behaviors that are often mistaken for listening, and contends that empathic listening, with the intent to really understand what the other is trying to communicate, is the only true form of listening.

In The One Minute Manager (1982), widely regarded as one of the best business management books ever written, authors Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson also assert that the best way to engage employees is to allocate time to listen to employees. Listening helps managers to solicit feedback and proactively find out about problems before they escalate. It’s also the only way for management to get to know people as individuals and ensure that they feel genuinely valued.

And in Dale Carnegie’s iconic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), many of the golden rules revolve around listening: Be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves, become genuinely interested in other people, try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view, and be sympathetic to the other person’s ideas and desires.

Waggl recently asked 500,000 business leaders, HR leaders and consultants whether they believe listening to their employees and incorporating their ideas is critical to an organization’s success. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with 97 % of the people who participated answering YES. And yet, when asked as a follow up question whether hearing from employees once a year via annual survey gives organizations the timely insights they need to be successful, 38% agreed. These responses seem to point to a significant gap between the intention and actual practice of business and HR leaders in listening to their employees. If listening is important, how can hearing from employees annually be an effective frequency of communication? Perhaps even more significantly, the data also raises the issue of why so many companies still rely heavily on the annual survey, when it is clear that most people believe so strongly that incorporating employee ideas is critical to an organization’s success.

If you feel that your organization isn’t listening enough, you’re not alone – many leaders and organizations feel the same way. We posed two questions to HR practitioners during a recent webinar hosted by the Northern California Human Resources Association (NCHRA):

1. Do the leaders in your organization do an excellent job of actively listening to the needs and wisdom of the workforce?

2. How do you think your organization could be improved if leaders took a more active approach?

A full 57% of the participants felt that their leaders do not do an effective job actively listening. The top answer to how active listening could improve the organization was: ”I think that leaders would understand some of the complexity in the issues that lead to our suggested fixes.”

Let’s face it -- we’ve all experienced the deleterious effects of the lack of active listening within the workplace at some point. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the workforce has attended a meeting in which one executive does the talking while other participants hold back their thoughts, worried about the impact of changes and decisions, while feeling utterly powerless to express themselves or do anything about their circumstances. The result is not only a lack of consensus -- when staff members don’t feel that they’ve been heard, the result is a general lack of commitment, engagement and productivity.

According to recent data released by Gallup, an average of 50.8% of employees are disengaged, and another 17.2% were actively disengaged. In fact, employee engagement has consistently averaged less than 33% for the past 15 years. And there are real costs associated with this lack of engagement -- approximately $26K per employee each year, and over $450B lost annually in productivity.

What is causing this epidemic of disengagement? The most likely reason is that people don’t feel that their opinions matter within the workplace. And the challenge is getting even more complicated. Recent research from Cisco indicates that all industries are feeling the force of digital disruption, and that most industries are now being disrupted every 3.1 years. The Millennial generation (young adults born between 1976 and 2001) will soon comprise nearly half of the workforce, and have a very different view of professional success than the generations that preceded them. What’s more, we are operating within a new paradigm of increased transparency, with 26,000 Yelp reviews being written every day. Taken together, these trends point to an unprecedented pace of change –which is further accelerating the need to listen.

Business leaders may believe that they are open to hearing what’s happening within the organization, but often time the “listening” consists only of measurement. One-way communication tactics like annual surveys are a chore for both participants and administrators, and they are too slow to conduct and analyze. And as helpful as quantitative data can be, it only tells part of the story. Perhaps it’s time to stop measuring and start actively listening.

So, how can we all develop better active listening skills within the workplace?

1. Build on a foundation of solid values – respect, humility, curiosity, empathy, and inclusion. Believe that people deserve to be heard.

2. Keep in mind that true listening creates a deeper connection on 3 levels – individual, group and self. Stress causes us to stop listening, so be sure to carve out time to reflect at each level.

3. Open your mind. Recognize that great insight can come from anyone. The stronger we feel about an issue, the less likely we are to accept input from others

4. Focus. We don’t listen when we’re not interested or we’re distracted. In the current digital environment, we are relentlessly barraged by distractions – 2.46M posts, 277K Tweets, and 3,472 images are pinned every minute. Listening is actually the least developed of all our senses, and even when we do listen, we only remember 17-25% of what was said. So, do your best to screen out external noise.

5. Play back what you’ve heard. This ensures that you’ve understood the most salient points and lets the sender know that the message has been received.

6. Discover innovative ways to gather insight. Pulse surveys can be used to listen to groups of people quickly and easily, distill insights, and improve the organization by boosting commitment, engagement, and productivity.

Author’s Note: This article was co-authored by Kate Benediktsson, fire-maker, serial startup founder, and psychotherapist. Kate is a full-range person with freedom and loyalty her core values. As founder of 7 businesses, author, life coach, psychotherapist, and trapeze artist, Kate believes that workplaces become more human when people bring their full selves to the workplace. She is a passionate proponent of active listening and a more empathetic world. She volunteers weekly at Community Violence Solutions as a therapist. She believes deeply in both the human and organizational capacity to heal and find group cohesion. Kate is on the founding team of Waggl and serves as the Head of Ignition and Experience.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS