Listening, Hearing and Understanding – What is the key element?

storm clouds forming
Is a storm coming or is this after the storm? Without all the observation, one does not know.

When asked to list essential leadership skills, there may be a variety of items listed.  However, listening is definitely one that most leaders would say is a skill that is not only essential, but is one that needs to be tended and cultivated.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to say that listening is a skill that needs improvement.

There are lots of factors that go into how we listen and there are different levels of listening.  For example; there is the aspect of just hearing (what are the words that are being said?).  Our brains are interesting things.  Have you ever noticed that there are times when someone says something to you and you only hear bits of the sentence?  Then you realize what was likely to have been said?  Our brains are very good at filling in patterns.  Our brains fill in the blank spots.  And, sometimes we fill in with the wrong word or even the wrong sentence.  When we are really working on listening; it is important that we don’t fill in the gaps for the speaker. One has to stop and make sure that we have heard what was said, not what we thought was said.

There is the aspect of tone, how the words are being conveyed.  As listeners, we have all experienced a misunderstanding of what was trying to be conveyed because of the tone of the words.  For example, someone makes a comment that was intended to be a joke but the listener assumed the comment was serious.  Or, a speaker sounds angry and conveys that as anger to the person within hearing, yet it really wasn’t anger, it was frustration.

While we are “listening;” we really tend to be multitasking.  We are assessing the information being conveyed.  We are evaluating and making judgments.  We are preparing our response, questions, or what we are going to say.  We are processing and planning.  We aren’t necessarily really attempting to understand the information that is being presented.

The definition of listening is from a leadership perspective is to pay attention, pay heed. Listening is,  therefore, is not just an auditory skill.  Truly listening means that you have to gather information to understand what is being conveyed. This means that we have to understand the tone and other cues that are being provided with the words.  It is the lack of cues in emails, texting, tweets, and other forms of social media that is getting all of into trouble.  Just how do you convey cues in 140 characters or in a 10-second sound bite?

As leaders, we are supposed to be communicators. Which means that we not only have to convey the information, but we have to make sure that our listener is truly hearing what it is we are trying to convey.  We need to recognize when we aren’t listening and when our listeners aren’t listening.  We need to make sure that we aren’t just processing words and we understand the information and ideas that are trying to be conveyed.  We have to slow down and think about what is being conveyed, before we process, assess and respond.

A quick internet search will find a number of methods to improve listening.  There is the active listener method. There are the 5, 10 or 12 steps to becoming a better listener.  And, there are ways to practice, such as listening to audio books or summaries, working with a partner, and taking notes.  But, all of these require something more fundamental, the knowledge that most of us really don’t listen and that we have to be engaged in the process to listen.  Without this fundamental acknowledgment, you might as well be in a sound proof room.

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