Many a True Word

by Jan Stewart

Copyright © Jan Stewart. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published in HR Monthly July 1997 and has been reprinted from the Team Management Systems website. Please visit for further information or to contact the authors direct.

The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.

Alfred Brendel

Active listening is one of the skills of communication universally extolled as vital to management success. But how well is it done in practice?

The CEO of a large multinational company based in Britain once told me that he owed his success to three things: his ability to listen ... his ability to listen ... and his ability to listen! He explained that in his day-to-day dealings in the company, he spoke to lawyers, electricians, engineers, and accountants. Many times he didn't understand what they were saying and only by listening carefully was he able to get to the core of the problems.

We all know that some people are better listeners than others. How often have you come across a person at a business or social gathering who won't let you finish your tale before bursting forth with their own story, which they obviously feel is more interesting than yours? Have you experienced the "conversation surfer" who shows little interest in what you are saying and tunes in to parallel conversations of surrounding groups?

We have all experienced managers who continue to write, look through files, or answer the phone while we are trying, in vain, to impart some crucial information. Who can ignore the glazed eyes of workshop participants after lunch, with their gaze focused on infinity and their minds even further away?

I have witnessed many conversations where two people at a gathering are busily telling their own tale without taking notice of any replies and merely waiting for the other to pause so that their next thought can be verbalized. An American psychologist once said, "Conversation in the States today is a competitive exercise where the first person to draw breath is declared the listener!" It is not confined to the States; it happens all over the world.

In the cut and thrust of the business world, I find many executives not only speed read, but speed listen as well. Such is the commercial world where there is never enough time! Speed reading is an ideal method of getting the gist of written communication, but "speed listening" is fraught with danger.

Listening only to the first few sentences of a conversation is not an ideal way to gather all the information needed for good decision making. Firing back the answer as soon as the other person stops speaking may solve the problem quickly, but there is always a danger that vital information may have been missed.

This trait is prevalent, almost universal, in most of the managers I have met. The technical terms for this process are to be found in the depths of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). In layman's terms, it is difficult to keep an external focus and listen effectively to others when you are talking to yourself and internally processing information.

People who are good listeners tend to be attracted to the caring and counselling professions, where the ability to listen is essential. Gathering information from verbal communication - not only from the words themselves, but also from the tone and timbre - helps the listener really understand what the other person is saying.

Doctors have to train themselves to carefully listen to their patients so that a correct diagnosis of their illness is made. Could you imagine consulting a doctor with poor listening skills who decided on the amputation of your painful limb rather than probing further into the cause and an alternative cure? Yet this type of decision is often made in business circles - a quick-fix decision made with the minimum of information gathering. How long can organizations take an aspirin without trying to find the root cause of the "headache"?

The corporate world can learn much from the techniques used in caring professions. Learning to listen well, making brief notes, and summarizing regularly can go a long way to ensuring you have gathered relevant facts from another person.

Sometimes listening to a person who speaks slowly, or to someone who is inclined to take off at tangents, can take patience. But a little time invested in listening can pay dividends later when decisions or plans have to be made. Having all the information and everyone's input is a solid foundation for sound decisions.

You need to be silent on the inside as well as outside to listen well!

Copyright © Jan Stewart. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Jan Stewart is a freelance writer and columnist. She is a master trainer in Team Management Systems and was, for eight years, a TMS Product Development Manager and program facilitator.

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