7 ways that enable us to listen not just hear

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This quote from Stephen Covey[1] is relevant more than ever in today’s fast paced, ambiguous, and at times, uncertain business environment: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Over the past few weeks I have been in and out of meetings and workshops with leaders and managers at various organisational levels in a diverse range of industries. In one meeting a very frustrated leader posed “why is it people don’t seem to listen anymore?”. Her perspective was that people were hearing but not necessarily fully engaging in actively listening.

I started consciously observe and to consider why it is some people don’t listen. Why it is that some people give the impression they are listening, only to find out later they were not listening at all. I also reflected on and endeavoured to observe how well I listened.

I think Hugh McKay[2] in his book Why Don’t People Listen sums up why this seemingly simple task is actually more challenging than it seems. When in discussion with others we are attentive to:

  • What did they MEAN to say?
  • What they ACTUALLY said
  • What the other person HEARS
  • What the other person THINKS he/she hears
  • What the other person SAYS in response
  • What you THINK the other person has said

While it appears simple, listening is actually complex because it involves deriving meaning.

Here are seven tips that people at any level can apply to become more active in their listening:

  • Use the power of questions to help clarify meaning, to test assumptions, remove misunderstanding, and promote discussion.
  • Don’t jump from “hear” to “respond” without ensuring you fully understand the situation or issue. Summarise and reflect back to the person what you understand their position is before responding with your own point of view.
  • Suspend judgement; practice listening from a position of “not knowing” i.e. when listening, even if you think you know the answer, listen as if you are hearing the information for the first time and accept that what the person is saying is true for them right then.
  • Don’t be concerned about taking a moment to reflect on what has been said, and then answer.
  • Wait for a response; don’t feel you have to fill the space.
  • Be empathetic – others have an absolute right to feel any way they please. It may turn out they were incorrect or misunderstood or vice versa.
  • Consider what cues people maybe sending through their non-verbal communication and the impact this might have on your capacity to listen attentively to what they are saying and vice- versa. Recent studies show that leaders believe that it is becoming harder to listen because often their attention is divided between available time, multi-tasking, conference and video calls, people demanding more of their time, and constant noise coming from the digital space in the many forms of instant messaging. The quantity of listening is increasing however the quality is often questionable. Listening is one of the ten essential skills for leaders.   Improving our ability as leaders to actively listen can be learned. Or maybe it is simply a case of calming down to listen to what is really going on around you. Leaders who listen build trust and commitment because while investing time to listen to people they are simultaneously sending a message that they have people’s best interest at heart.

Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.


[1] Stephen Covey; The 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People

[2] www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743511374/