Nobody ever listens!

Here’s a fact. It has been reported that the average executive spends up to 2 hours of the working day “doing”, that is, getting on with the job and 6 hours “communicating”, i.e. exchanging information. The average consultant’s day will differ from this profile, it is sure – for a start we spend much of the day dealing with all those ironically named “office automation” applications. The fact remains, however, that a significant proportion of our working minutes are spent in meetings, interviews, group discussions and, for some, client lunches.

So what? Well, while we spend many hours of our lives honing our outward communications skills, for example in presentations, interviewing and report writing, the inward art of listening is most often assumed. Listening is a given, so we concentrate on outward skills such as learning the right questions to ask, how to structure a report or how to get a message across.

Listening is a given. Hmmmm… maybe it is. We listen all the time, and therefore we are constantly keeping our abilities to listen “on the boil”. However, as with all givens, the issue is one of complacency. In this context, we have two weapons against complacency: knowledge and discipline.

Knowledge is required, in terms of what makes a good listener and what are the blockers to good listening. A good listener is – OK, hands up what makes a good listener? that’s right, someone who:

  • pays attention!
  • sees the speaker’s point of view
  • shows interest in the subject matter
  • looks for the underlying messages in the speaker’s words.

Blockers to good listening are less easy to pinpoint.

  • baggage – extraneous clutter in our own brains which distracts from the conversation in hand
  • inner noise – where the conversation sets off a train of thoughts which, though fascinating, prevent us from continuing to listen
  • control – making leaps of understanding about what the person is trying to say, thereby missing his actual point entirely
  • ping-pong – where a client’s point triggers a memory or an opinion, so we spend the next minutes looking for a suitable gap to express it
  • display – where we use the conversation as a tool to express our own knowledge, thus ignoring the client’s subject matter and making him feel stupid in the bargain
  • hidden agenda – where we ensure that the conversation achieves our own goals, forgetting to check that the client’s goals are satisfied. Dull down your own agenda – for example, don’t bring sales talk into a requirements capture exercise, but note any opportunities for later

Discipline, in this context, involves the continued relearning and application of good listening practice. It is relatively simple to give a pretence of paying attention but this is not enough. Good listening requires sustained concentration (“hanging on every word”), with the listener constantly on the lookout for any underlying messages, (“not what I say but what I mean”). Paying attention is not easy even in optimal conditions. In difficult (that is, real-world) situations, with heated rooms, distracted participants and too-little time, it can be nigh impossible. In either case it requires effort.

Throughout the conversation, the good listener should be on the lookout for blockers to listening, both preventing them in advance (for example, by clearing one’s mind of preconceived agendas) and recognising them when they appear. Not all parts of all conversations require intensive listening. There is always a need for balance – for example, small talk and telephone preambles are leisure activities which may not require full attention.

These words have concentrated on listening, not because it is more important than speaking or presenting but because it is as important. It is not only an issue of making the client feel appreciated. Before we can give the customer what he is asking for, we have to listen to the question.

Nobody ever listens!

One thought on “Nobody ever listens!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *