Leadership Thought #473 – The Disease of Half-Listening

April 15, 2015

How to Deal with Bad Listeners

Too many people really aren’t fully listening.

As part of my work, I am in a lot of meetings and conference calls.  It’s amazing and somewhat disheartening at times to see how the quality of these interactions can vary. There are moments where it feels like everyone is “dialed-in” and paying rapt attention, but these are few and far between. More often than not, you either see or hear participants focusing on other things like checking their email and text messages, surfing the web, engaging in side conversations or tuning out altogether.  Because of this dynamic, we often stray off topic, have to repeat points, answer the same questions more than once, and deal with feedback that is ill-informed.  We also ending up wasting the time of others who are engaged.

Just about everyone I know complains about the quality of meetings they attend. The questions I ask them in return are, “how are you showing up?” and what are you doing to make them better?”  I’m convinced we could cut our meeting time in half and/or get  a lot more accomplished if people just focused on the topic at hand.

When I was growing up it was rude to not give another person your full attention when they were talking to you.  Now it has become commonplace to check-in and check-out as we see fit.  We have created a new disease of half-listening and it is infecting organizations and families.  Instead of others feeling like we care about them, we instead focus only as long as we feel stimulated to engage.  Sadly, I’ve seen many adults behave like teenagers in this regard. What’s important is what we want, think or feel, not how our actions are affecting others. We convince ourselves that we are only multi-tasking and juggling our multitude of responsibilities, but this is nonsense. Focus always trumps distraction.  And, the best leaders are still the best listeners.

Unless you live in a vacuum, you need to master the art of communicating with others especially if you want to lead them.  Communicating is only partially about talking.  In fact, what you say is much less important than what the other person hears. The best relationships are a two-way street where all parties are equally engaged in the conversation. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “the conversation is not about the relationship, the conversation is the relationship.” It doesn’t matter if there are two people or twenty people in the room.  None of us wants to feel less important than someone else.   We want our voice heard.  It is only logical that people tend to listen to others who they feel make an effort to listen to them.  Sure, some people may still dominate the conversation based on status or personality, but everyone in the room/relationship owns the outcome whether they like it or not.

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