The Power of Listening

Joan F. Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.
The best way to understand people is to listen to them.
-- Ralph Nichols

That listening is not the same as hearing is hopefully no news. In fact, you can still listen when there's nothing to be heard- and understand or misunderstand the communication that the silence in a particular situation represents. A good example of what I am trying to explain here is the way Japanese business people accomplish their bargains: they just keep quiet after their foreign business relative has laid out the business deal on the table. They do this because they are aware that silence usually creates an uneasy feeling within the seller, especially if he or she is an American, whereby he/she "hears" dissatisfaction. The logical consequence is, then, that the guest offers a better deal in order not to go home empty-handed. That's the power of using silence toward people who never really acknowledged the power of listening!

Of course there is also a cultural component involved here. If you don't know that keeping quiet is not necessarily an expression of discontent, and that it is a much used business strategy in the eastern part of the world, you may easily become uncomfortable. But then again, one would assume that people on an international business mission should be well aware of generally used methods by their potential counterparts, right?

For managers, listening is a valuable skill in order to determine whether co-workers are pleased with processes and approaches or not. For leaders, listening may even determine the difference between maintaining their leadership position, and disappearing into insignificant nothingness. Calvin Coolidge asserted once, "It takes a great man to be a good listener." A good leader doesn't only listen with the ears, but uses the eyes, the mind, and the heart as well. A good leader realizes that sometimes the essence of the point is made in the unsaid. Here is where empathic listening comes into play. This is the art of listening to the spoken as well as the unspoken words.

Keeble (2002) enumerates the most important qualities in successful business performance by affirming, "There are some principles necessary when dealing with strong people who have a lot of drive. Mutual respect is essential. There also has to be trust. Each partner in the relationship has to be open, honest and accessible. The ability to engage in active listening is crucial-that is, hearing the real issue, not just reacting to the noise." (p. 137)

Khouri (2002), a Jordanian journalist, who has temporarily been converted through the September 11 attacks, from an active, weekly contributor in the international press, to a sideline spectator, admits that during these difficult times he realized that "the art of listening is among a journalist's greatest assets" (p. 100). Khouri then suggests, "Perhaps this approach should be incorporated more deliberately into journalism education and training." Reflecting this newly gained insight in the power of listening to his current position, he explains, "Because I'm not writing my syndicated column, I don't have to summarize my thoughts each week and package them in an 800-word bundle of analysis, opinion, reporting and entertainment. Unconstrained by such deadlines, while at the same time challenged to deal with the many complex dimensions of the September 11 attack and its aftermath, I find myself listening more deliberately and intently than I have before as I try always to hear, digest and analyze what others are saying. [] Listening more intently and carefully gives me a much better understanding of the society around me than I would have had if I'd been in my regular routine." (p. 100)

Merely being listened to is sometimes all that people need to feel recognized. If employees have the idea that their suggestions are being considered because they are sincerely paid attention to, they will not even mind if their suggestions are not always applied into work-processes: it's the listening the serious attention being given to them the dedicated look the alertness the personal touch the focus of the leader on their presence and their contribution that makes all the difference. Great leaders know that. And they work with it.

Fisher (2002) keeps his explanation about the importance of listening in the workplace short and sweet by asserting, "Employee morale [] does not have to be cut along with expenditures. You can motivate workers without spending an extra dime. That process begins with a listening ear." (p. 9) Bates (2002) also has a very efficient way of emphasizing the power of listening, by presenting the outcomes of a study by the Greensboro, N.C.-based Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), which found that, "the more stress an organization is facing, the more important it is that its leaders demonstrate "soft" skills such as listening to and empathizing with employees who are facing workplace upheaval." (p.10)

Listening is also a powerful tool at home. Brendan Francis once wisely concluded, "A man is already halfway in love with any woman who listens to him." However, it works just as effectively the other way around, although many men don't seem to understand that. Bottom line is that the partner or parent who does not develop the skill to listen will find him- or herself being left out in the long run. Children and spouses communicate in various ways: often with words, but many times also with acts, or the lack of those. Listen to them! Like in good leadership, listening here also involves the use of eyes, mind and heart on top of ears. Be alert to changes, be alert to looks, and be alert to attitudes. It is good to talk, but it is great to listen.

Let me present you, as a pre-finale to this article, a powerful explanation of listening by Allison Para Bastien: "Listening is noting what, when and how something is being said. Listening is distinguishing what is not being said from what is silence. Listening is not acting like you're in a hurry, even if you are. Listening is eye contact, a hand placed gently upon an arm. Sometimes, listening is taking careful notes in the person's own words. Listening involves suspension of judgment. It is neither analyzing nor racking your brain for labels, diagnoses, or remedies before the person is done relating her symptoms. Listening, like labor assisting, creates a safe space where whatever needs to happen or be said can come."

Haven't you ever had an encounter with someone that you just listened to, and whereby, at the end of the meeting, this person tells you, "What a great conversation was that! I love talking to you." Inside you may smile even if you did not speak more than 10 words in the whole "conversation," for this may be the moment that you realize that you have mastered one of the most valuable skills in your communication with the entire environment: the power of listening.

References:

* Bates, S. (2002). Honesty, empathy cited in effective leadership. HRMagazine, 47(3), 10.
* Fisher, B. R. (2002). How to motivate employees in tough financial times. Supervision, 63(4), 9-11.
* John B. Keeble, I. (2002). Bald Egos: Successful people often have strong egos, and that can make them difficult to manage. Here are some suggestions. Financial Planning, 137.
* Khouri, R. G. (2002). A Nieman year during difficult times. Nieman Reports, 56(1), 100.
* Various. (1997-2001). Quoteland: Quotations by Tpoic, [On-line]. quoteland.com. Available: http://www.quoteland.com/topic.asp?CATEGORY_ID=96 [2002, May 5].
* Various. (2002, Mon, 29 April 2002). The Internet's Largest Collection of Quotations on Listening, [On-line]. Available: http://www.listen.org/quotations/quotes_caring.html [2002, May 5].