Are You Hearing or Listening?

Posted 01.22.2020

One of the things I’ve said for a long-time as an executive coach is that if you get colleague feedback that you need to be a better listener, take the feedback and start working on it. The positive leadership ripple effects from doing a better job of listening are enormous and wide-spread. Problem-solving, team-engagement, relationships and results all improve when leaders listen better.

I was reminded of this again a few weeks ago when conducting colleague feedback interviews for a new coaching client. (This is the time of year when I usually take on a few new clients.) One of the colleagues made an interesting distinction between hearing and listening as in, “I think he hears me, but I’m not always sure he’s listening to me.” That distinction between hearing and listening is a simple one but yields a big difference in outcomes.

Hearing is really just sound waves landing on your ear drums. When it stops there, it’s what I call transient listening. You’re on your way to someplace else – physically, mentally or both. You’re basically in transit and not present. How do you know when you’re just hearing and not really listening? Some of the warning signs include:

  • Your focus is on you.
  • Your goal is to wrap up and move on.
  • You feel distracted or impatient.
  • You interrupt to tell your thoughts.

Listening, on the other hand, involves a lot more than your ear drums. When you’re really listening, you’re engaging your brain and the other party’s brain. That’s how you build both connection and value.

From my point of view, there are two basic styles of value-added listening – transactional and transformational. You see a lot of transactional listening at work because it’s the kind of listening that’s best suited to solve a problem or identify a next step. Here are some of the signs that you’re engaging in transactional listening:

  • Your focus is on the other party.
  • Your goal is to move things forward.
  • You feel purposeful and focused.
  • You ask open-ended questions and clarify timelines.

In most organizations, you don’t see a lot of transformational listening. That’s too bad, because it’s the kind of listening that creates the most long-term value. Transformational listening not only engages the brains in the conversation, it quite often engages the hearts. It’s listening with the primary agenda to connect with the other person. Connection builds trust and trust yields results. Here are some of the signs that you’re engaging in transformational listening:

  • Your focus is on the connection between you and the other party.
  • Your goal is to learn more about the other party – what they think, what they value and how they feel.
  • You feel creative, connected and relaxed.
  • You observe with your eyes and are comfortable with silence and build on what’s said.

So, what do you think? Have you been hearing more or listening more lately? If it’s more on the hearing side, I’d suggest you pick one or two of the signs of transactional listening to focus on in your conversations in the coming weeks. If you think you’re already doing a great job on transactional listening, why not look for or create some opportunities for transformational listening in the next few weeks? Based on what my clients have told me over the years about what happens when they engage in transformational listening, I can practically guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

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