Many years ago it was my good fortune to come across a very interesting article in the Star Ledger newspaper of Newark, New Jersey. It dealt with the fact that the best leaders were good listeners. I always find articles like these to be immensely interesting, for you see I am a really bad listener by nature. I have been working on this for decades, but unfortunately believe myself to still be a work in progress.
Back in the 1980's I had a case of galloping ambition. I felt like I was being held back by Newark and needed to move on to reach my full potential. Many years ago, I took part in an oral examination process for the position of Fire Chief in a large metropolitan city in the Midwest. After the interview process was completed, I had to catch a flight out of town to get back to work in Newark. My instincts seem to tell me that I had done 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 for the position.
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. This kindly gentleman then proceeded to spend a great deal of time debriefing me on my participation in the many exercises. 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 went on to explain 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 for them. So you see, had I been a better listener, I might well have been the Chief of that city nearly three decades ago. I later became a friend of the person who got the job. What a neat guy.
The lessons that I learned from that long-ago interview remain with me to this day. I have worked to be 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. I have worked diligently to be better. 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 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 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.
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. Make them the center of attention.
3. Concentrate on the ideas being proposed to you.
4. Avoid framing your response to the speaker while they are still talking.
5. Listen to what people are actually saying.