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.
6. Then as you are speaking, listen to what you are saying.
7. Do not speak until the other person has stopped talking.
8. Do not act like a dumb ass and trample on the other persons thoughts.
There was a person with who I once worked who would never let me finish a statement, or complete the verbal exploration of a thought. Trust me when I say that 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. Working with this person 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 at Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas. I was thinking of staying in Memphis after my separation from the service. I had several friends in the area who wanted me to 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. That is, unless you happen to be a guest in an Athens’s middle school. And 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.
Let me sum up this little trip through the world of leadership 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.