While I was cleaning up my desk the other day, I came across a very interesting article in an old edition of the Star Ledger newspaper of Newark, New Jersey. It had apparently found its way to the bottom of one of my famous 'stacks of stuff' on my desk. This article dealt with a topic which has long been near and dear to my heart. It spoke to the fact that research indicated that the best leaders were good listeners.
As is my way, I took the time to reread the article. Once again it was an immensely interesting read. Since I have long held up to the world the fact that I am bad listener by nature, any time I can find a new way to fight the battle of bad listening, I take up the page and review the document. This is what I did in this case.
As I read the words of the research, my mind began to drift back to a journey I made many years ago. This was back during the 'I want to be a Fire Chief' phase of my life. This led me to many different places. In one instance, I took part in an oral examination process for position of Fire Chief in a large city in the Midwest. As you now know, I never did leave the good old City of Newark, but back then I have a wanderlust that took me to many different places.
I felt that I had done very well. Since I had to leave town immediately after the final interview session, I missed out on the debriefing session for all of the candidates. About a week later, I received a telephone call from one of the lead assessors. He said that in point of fact, I placed in the top three on the candidate’s list.
However, I am most appreciative that he did not stop when he gave me the results of my performance. This kind gentlemen then spent a great deal of time explaining to me how I had performed on the many exercises I had in which I had taken part. He indicated that I had done well on each part of the examination, and in fact had achieved the highest traditional oral interview grade.
He then explained the primary reason why I had not placed first on the list. This kind soul then stated that my listening skills were not all that they could have been. He said that I tended to interrupt people before they were done completing their thoughts. He also said that I had a habit of completing other people’s phrases. Had I been a better listener, I may well have been the Chief of that city nearly 30 years ago.
The lessons that I learned from that long-ago interview remain with me to this day. As a matter of fact, I shared them with my seminar audience at the Nebraska State Fire School back in May. I mentioned to them how I have devoted myself to becoming a better listener.
Like any other long-term project, there have been some successes and some failures. I am probably better now, but backsliding can occur at any time. In spite of my failures, I have worked diligently to become a better listener.
Let me share an important question with you. Why do we have to be a good listener? Because, if you are trying to talk while someone else is attempting to express their thoughts, you may miss someone else’s good idea. Some of the best things that have ever happened to me came as a result of advice from a friend, or a suggestion from a stranger. If I had not been listening, I would have missed their thought.
Carter and Rausch (2008) tell us in Management in the Fire Service, 4th ed., that, “officers need to be aware of their listening competence, so they can practice, reflect, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and improve their habits.” They go one to stress that listening is a two-way street. In order for listening to be effective, some action has to occur.
We all need to be aware of the true nature of listening. Carter and Rausch (2008) add that, “effective listening occurs at two levels; passive and active listening. Passive listening is merely paying attention to what the speaker is saying. Active listening includes empathy and the responsibility for understanding the speakers full thought. Active listening requires two-way communications.” In other words, you have to work at it.