Active listening is something you can learn. What are some of the things you have to work on? Here is a short list that I have memorized:
1. Always look at the person to whom you are listening
2. Concentrate on the ideas being proposed to you.
3. Avoid framing your response to the speaker while they are still talking.
4. Listen what you are saying.
5. Do not speak until the other person has stopped talking.
I can recall working with an individual who never let me finish a statement, or complete the verbal exploration of a thought. It was very difficult to communicate with this person, because he was always talking and never listening. Of course it gave me the opportunity to practice my skills as a listener. It also forced me to focus, because I never knew where a conversation was headed. I feel that much was lost by the lack of a full two-way interaction.
Many years ago I had an appointment with the late Chief of the Memphis, Tennessee Fire Department, Edward Hamilton. The time was 1970, and I was a U.S. Air Force firefighter stationed in Arkansas. I was thinking of staying in Memphis after my separation from the service. I had several friends who wanted to see me join them on the fire department, and were working behind the scenes to make this happen.
They all gave me the same piece of advice. Chief Hamilton was a no-nonsense person, and he appreciated a person who looked him right in the eye, and paid close attention to what he was saying. For those of you who know me and may have known Chief Hamilton, you can understand how tough this was. At the time I was real big, and the Chief was diminutive.
But I did as I was told, and the interview went fairly well. Of course, once my days in the service were over I did what most people do when they are released from active duty. I returned home with a speed approximating that of light. But I took the look-them-in-the-eye lesson of my meeting with Chief Hamilton home with me. It has served me well many times over the past three decades. And remember, if someone is looking you in the eye, it is tougher for them to talk behind your back. Or at least it is that way for most decent people.
An area that often gets overlooked in any discussion of listening involves the use and monitoring of non-verbal clues. What people do and how they act can give you a clue as to whether they are actually listening. I can recall being at a meeting one afternoon where the boss spent more time glancing at his watch than listening to my ideas.
There is also the Bright Sunny Day syndrome. You are attempting to talk with someone and they are looking at the first robin of spring landing on a tree limb right outside of their window. You may as well be speaking Greek to a group of grade school students, for all the success you will have.
How many times have you attempted to talk with someone, only to be interrupted by the ringing of a phone, the buzzing of an intercom, and the “… could you please hold that thought for a moment?” On more than one occasion, my train of thought has been derailed by a runaway telephone. It is even worse these days with all of the texting, tweeting, and twittering that is going on in the electronic world of the 21st Century.
Let me sum up this little trip through the world of leadership training and education with a simple statement. People like to talk. But more importantly, people like to be heard. If you want to achieve your greatest success as a leader, by making the listening skills we have discussed here a part of your permanent character and ethical portfolio. As we said in our last column, there are no quick fixes. You have to become a better listener one conversation at a time. Go for it.