Listening, Part II: What REALLY Gets in the Way?


The previous post begins to explore the case for listening better. This post is meant to begin a conversation about what gets in the way of listening.

I imagine that our cave-person ancestors were good listeners. It was a matter of survival, after all, that they’d be able to hear the animals that were either their next meal or that might eat them. I imagine they would also gather together to have tribal dialog, where respect and listening went hand in hand; the tribe’s safety depended on it. Our ancestor’s ears were turned on and listening all the time.

But then, they didn’t have telephones, televisions, Blackberries, or Outlook alerts. They didn’t have our face-paced organizations that must move quicker than the competition.

Yet these technological gadgets, which certainly can distract us from truly listening to others, are the surface of the problem that causes poor listening skills. Distractions, technical or not, are simply an excuse to hide a belief that we try to hide from our fully conscious self.

The truth is that we think we know more than others. We believe that we have the right answers and that our peers and employees don’t have anything of value to add. Their knowledge, opinions, and humanity don’t count. This is what really keeps us from listening. The gadgets are only an excuse.

There. Kind person though I may be, I’ve wanted to say that for a very long time.

If we believed that others were important, that they even might have the possibility of being bright, capable, creative and able to add value, the distractions wouldn’t matter. We’d be able to dismiss the distractions and be fully present and able to listen deeply to others.

Do you value others and what they have to say? Ask yourself that, and if the answer is “yes”, you’re on your way to becoming a better listener and, quite possibly, a phenomenal leader.

Next week: How to listen better, in two parts.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

12 comments on “Listening, Part II: What REALLY Gets in the Way?

  1. Well said! Listening is not easy, however, it is last skill we try to improve. Listening is the most effective tool in communication. Why is it, we are taught to read and write but not to listen? We are expected to understand but never taught to listen… Master listening and you will create followers.

  2. The information overload and technological gadgets train us to listen to the signals and tune out the noise. We learn to hear without listening and we only listen to what we want to hear.

    The fast-paced world gives us perfect excuses for selective listening. However, the reason we don’t listen is not because we are too busy, but because we don’t want to.

    Thanks for pointing that out. We have one excuse we can’t use for not listening now.

  3. I wish I knew who originally said this because I believe it wholly:

    “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

    When you listen you hold that space for people to unfold and expand; it’s worth taking the time to slow down and give your full attention to someone, isn’t it? At least I think so.

  4. Lisa, I’m not even sure that people recognize this is the reason behind their poor listening! Thanks for your kind words.

    Matt, Good point, I agree. I think it would be a great thing to require “listening learning” in school and beyond.

    Kevin, now if we could only eliminate all the other excuses….

    Marie, what a beautiful quote. Thank you!

  5. What I have learned from my experience is when we listen to others we show that we care for them. This makes the conversation much healthier. We have to keep our egos and gadgets aside if we want to make a productive work environment.

    Thanks Mary jo.

  6. Samson, great points. I certainly feel “cared for” when someone listens to me. Its always good to remind ourselves of the opposite, too – how we feel when we’re not listened to. For some – this may help them to focus on listening better.

  7. MaryJo,
    Thank you for speaking the hard truth about why we don’t listen. Most of the time, when I fail to listen, if I am honest with myself, it is because I think I know more, or already know what the speaker is trying to tell me. There is another ugly truth about the times I fail to listen. Fear .I don’t listen because I am afraid that truly hearing what is being said might require me to reflect upon and ultimately change a belief, a system, a habit, or a judgment that I am attached to. When I catch myself “tuning out” I like to ask myself “What am I afraid of” or “Why does this feel threatening”. It is not an easy process, but it is a worthwhile endeavor. I look forward to future posts on listening!

    Marne Stillwell

  8. To me it’s pretty rude to use your technical gadgets in mid conversation with someone. Makes you feel like you don’t matter and nothing you say matters. When TV and all these technical gadgets are shut off and you give the person your undivided attention, then you are a true listener. My dad always said watching TV can make someone dumber, I believe there is some truth to that and other gadgets. Instead of interacting with people or reading a book you watch a box. The problem these days as you stated is that people think too highly of themselves and think they are above everyone and only what they think counts. So they can’t put their cell phone down or turn it off cause they have to gossip at that second about themselves, even at the workplace.

  9. Thanks for posting on Listening Mary Jo, With so many methods of communication available to us in this day and age it got me thinking… How much are our leaders, bosses, and ourselves personally even paying attention to these communications. How self-focused have people become that a discussion is more of a debate that people just talk over each other instead of listening and then responding. I think we need to put down the modern technology and spend some time hearing what everyone else is saying.

  10. Marne, what a great reflective comment. I never thought of “fear of changing myself” as a possible barrier to listening, yet I know it to be true. This may be especially evident when someone’s views differ widely from our own. Thanks!

    Eric, I hope you’ll ready part III of this series which addresses the distractions.

    Joe, the very word “discussion” evokes (for me, even though I use it often) a back and forth, without the flow of conversation or dialog (and without the listening). Check out part III of this series on the distractions that get in the way.

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