The common cold of leadership is poor listening.
When I fail to focus on listening, then I am a terrible listener. I know I am not alone.
How often do we sit and “listen” to a friend or co-worker while our mind is elsewhere? Sure, we hear their words. We have to. How else can we fool people into thinking we are paying attention?
This backchanneling helps demonstrate engagement. Unfortunately, it can be easy to fake. If we simply follow a speaker’s cadence and intonation, we can intuit when to insert backchannel comments.
So what are we doing when we are not listening? We’re doing anything else. But in most cases, we are thinking.
What’s for dinner?
Did I remember to lock the door?
Oh, she wants to travel to Singapore? I should mention my trip to Singapore last year. The palm trees were so beautiful. And the food was second-to-none. I wonder where I can find some Hainanese chicken. Oh wait, that’s my cue.
I often struggle to truly listen. Instead, I tune into a person’s words just long enough to latch onto something relevant within my own knowledge. Anything will do. From there, I can craft a response. Meanwhile, my conversational partner is four sentences deep and I only recognized a bare minimum of words. Just enough to say-
I do not believe one can multitask while listening. But hearing a person’s words is possible.
Listening is different.
Listening requires more than mere comprehension. It is an act of interpersonal attunement. It involves deciphering the feeling and perspective behind the words. Many people (like myself) struggle to do this even with full engagement. Can we honestly expect anyone to do it while engaged in two or three simultaneous activities?
Even if we can backchannel and comprehend a person’s utterances, others can often intuit when we are not listening. Something seems “off.” Maybe our eyes flit up and to the left (a possible signal of daydreaming). And almost everyone knows the disheartening feeling when our conversational partner is not truly listening. When we sense another’s attention traveling elsewhere, we feel unimportant and unheard.
Listening is difficult, which means it is valuable. People who can master the art of attentive listening become magnetic to others. It takes a special person to make others feel like “they are the only person in the world.”
Take a deep breath, take a break from your mental chatter, and tune into others. It could be the best investment of attention you ever make.