The Lost Art of Listening

We don't listen enough. In a world where all of us are broadcasters, content creators, self-promoters, listening has become a lost art. We're too busy trying to saying something smart/witty/provocative/heartfelt, too busy trying to stand out. Ironically, too busy trying to be heard. We forget to listen.

We tweet, we Insta, we SnapChat, the old folks still Facebook, recruiters and weirdos LinkedIn. And in those worlds, we are concerned with broadcast. Look at me. Hear me. Read what I have to say. Behold what I had for breakfast. And if I don't want to hear what you say? I can mute you, un-follow you or de-friend you. That way, you have to listen to me, but I can 'la-la-la' your reality out of mine with the click of a button or a swipe of my finger. 


And its a problem. Because growth doesn't happen with the volume dial up. Connection doesn't happen without reception. We don't learn anything new while we are talking. No real understanding was ever gained via monologue. 


I learned a hell of a lot of useful and interesting things while training to be an Executive coach. But the most enduring was that a) the most powerful tools any coach (or, you know, person) has are the two stuck on either side of their head and b) our neurochemistry has a significant impact on our ability to really listen. 


Our brains are our enemies when it comes to listening. Those babies have evolved the shizzle out of information reception to the point where genuine listening is a rare and dying art. Our brains take our core beliefs, layer on top our previous experiences (our memories of which are coloured by our core beliefs) and our current physiology and squeeze what we hear and see through them like cheese cloth.

And lets be honest, much of the time our brains are flooded with cortisol. We're busy, we're tired, we're stressed. Especially at work where, try as we might to 'do engagement', most organisations are still cortisol factories and cortisol acts like a pair of those fancy pants Bose headphones when it comes to real listening.

Organisations aren't all that great at culturally embedding listening either. We think they are. We run surveys where we ask one way, pre-determined questions based on what we think we want to hear. We have meetings, AKA talking competitions. We locate people in different places and then attempt to get them to listen to each other via technology. We don't allocate time or money to the business of listening.

And I think I know why.

We are scared. Our high-alert, belief-addled, cortisol-flooded brains think they know what they're going to hear and they are scared.

Take an old CEO of mine who, when discussing the reasons why he didn't want to run an employee satisfaction survey with me, said "The problem is Lorna, they'll just use it as an opportunity to moan".

Or the HRD who, when faced with a real-life solitary female discussing the possible reasons why women weren't progressing to senior roles in the business, fished out the one-dimensional multiple-choice exit interview answers given rather than engage in an actual debate on the topic.

Or the MD who was brave enough to run a survey but then sat next to me as we leafed through the pages of feedback and sighed "The problem is communication is just too hard".

Ain't that the truth. Why listen if you think you won't like what's said? Why actively seek to listen if you think it will result in conflict? Why ask someone's opinion if you already know what you want to do and are just looking for a way to convince them you're right? If you're the boss, what will you learn? If you're not, why poke the bear?

And then along come some nice convenient alternatives to listening. Like Big Data, for example. Everyone's favourite wunderkind. I sat in a conference not so long ago where a sales guy tried to convince me that we didn't need customer service people with actual listening skills because his big-data technology could 'augment their empathy'. Never has a phrase made me shudder quite so much as 'augment your empathy'. Why on earth would I need to augment my employees' empathy unless I had done everything organisationally possible to drain them of it in the first place? Call me old fashioned, but can't we just allow people to treat other people like people?

Because this is what is at the heart of good, honest listening. Acknowledging that the other person is a person. Giving that person space, time, quiet to talk freely, to explore their thoughts, to explain themselves, to think.  Reserving judgement, seeking to understand. In life, in organisations, dare I say in politics, if we listened more and broadcast less we could move mountains. If we quietened the noise in our own heads long enough to acknowledge the noise in someone else's, if we sought to understand more and to assume less. If we spent less time churning out 'messaging' and more time encouraging dialogue. If we approached listening with curiosity not cynicism. If we valued quiet and reflection and connection as much as we value noise and content and assessment.

Then we might discover how to truly augment empathy.

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