How do you listen, exactly?

We are highly visual beings and that makes listening a complicated and tough undertaking. Because our brains are processing visual cues – that are much more heavily weighted than auditory cues – it’s inevitable that, when we ‘listen’, we will be judging, interrupting, looking for opportunities to score points, exaggerating (or even making stuff up!), or getting easily distracted. In other words, letting our ego play lead vocals.

And when we do that, what do we really learn about the other person?

How well we listen is amplified during crisis or change

Yes, so many other elements affect how we listen – the message, the depth of our relationships, personalities, the context, the complexity and history of that context, time pressures, available resources (including team members, peers and mentors), financial and legal constraints, competing priorities, etc.

It’s easy to feel under enormous pressure when things are moving fast or change initiatives are getting underway.

Listening is an art that we can master for everyday interactions – and in readiness for crises or periods of change. How much we have mastered it will show up loud and clear in times of crisis or change.

Depending on your line of work, leading through a crisis or change may be a regular state. Making good decisions is what you have to do every day. That makes listening a mission critical skill.

Listening is an art of conversation, which includes asking questions – the whole bundle is what earns us our right to lead others. Listening is part and parcel of crisis and change activities like staying visible, communicating frequently and gathering opinions.

So, next time you find yourself in a listening situation with colleagues or clients, family or friends, experiment with a couple of these ways of listening and make a mental note of what you discover:

  • Listen without judging
  • Listen without interrupting
  • Listen for emotions
  • Listen for doubts (and the fear that points to)
  • Listen for energy (and the aspiration that points to)
  • Listen for values
  • Listen for tone of voice
  • Listen for stress
  • Listen for where someone is stuck
  • Listen for their communication style*
  • Listen for their priorities
  • Listen for the things you like about them
  • Listen to discover their interests and point of view
  • Listen for how they can help you
  • Listen for how you can help them

Good listening leads us to great and relevant questions to ask.

Even when we try listening in just one of these ways, we become aware of just how much information we’ve missed before in conversations because we’ve been distracted by visual cues and judgments (among other things).

* So, what’s your communication style?

We all have our peculiar ways of communicating – a recognizable style that we default to especially when we are under pressure.

Most of us are sort of aware of our own style and we sort of know we need to be more flexible, but we’re just too busy…

Well, in honor of Confucius, I’ll keep this part simple.

Some of us are straight-talkers,

impatient and quick

Some of us share stories

and seek out the fun

Some of us are indirect

and no-one’s left out

Some of us are perfectionists

all the way to done

Did you recognize your default style of communicating? Do you recognize the communication style in here of your colleagues, your team members and family members?

We need people on our team who represent all these styles because all those behaviors matter. And behaviors are a reflection of our skills and an expression of our values.

If you want to expand on your refreshed awareness and you are leading a team, check out the questions that probe for how well you know your team members and how well your team hums.


(Photo credit: CC from Eknath Gomphotherium)

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