Is anyone listening anymore?

“I feel like you’re not listening to me,” says Murph to Ronathan, the network technician in the classic College Humor sketch.

How often have you said that, or felt like saying that? When was the last time someone said that to you (or had good reason to think that)?

In our world today, perhaps you feel that no one is really listening. And yet, this skill has never been more important, or more critical for success, in business and in life.

Effective listening, not better messaging, is the key to increased engagement

In organizations, change is driven by information exchange. It happens through the stories that are told and retold, the narratives and themes that take hold and develop into myths and legends that shape an organization or brand identity. The quality of communication within the organization determines the direction of change.

Today, many leaders (and their advisors) focus on “shaping the narrative” to “drive” or  “manage” change processes. Indeed, many organizations and institutions, and organizational leaders, seem to be retreating toward autocratic or oligarchic tendencies in response to our world of compounding complexity. Ultimately, this is a losing strategy.

In the business world, in this era of the Great Resignation, with record numbers of workers leaving their jobs to pursue other opportunities, employees seem to be saying en masse “you’re not listening to me.” In one survey, two-thirds of exiting employees said they were seeking more fulfillment in the workplace, not just leaving for increased pay or better benefits.

Doubling down on outdated top-down leadership models won’t increase engagement or stem the flow of exiting employees.

The real secret to better communication? Effective listening.

Whether you’re communicating with one other person, or your entire team, or an entire group of employees, the quality of listening is what ultimately drives successful outcomes.

The one sure way to measure listening effectiveness

How do you know if you’re listening effectively?

In my own journey to become a better listener, I’ve learned that it’s not about a particular “technique” or “style” or method. While learning and practicing different approaches may be helpful, techniques themselves do not necessarily lead to better listening, and may be counterproductive, as illustrated in the example below.

And listening is certainly not a tool to be used to direct the conversation or establish your position. Any ego-driven effort will quickly be detected and will backfire if your intent is to build rapport, earn respect, drive engagement, or develop deeper relationships.

Only one thing really matters: Does the other person FEEL heard?

“I feel like you’re not listening”

For a hilarious take on how NOT to listen, see this classic College Humor video.

In the sketch, a network administrator, Ronathan, responds to a help request from a coworker, Murph. Ronathan uses a clumsy, condescending, incredibly annoying parody of active listening. He interrupts Murph’s every word (“to show you that I’m listening to you”) and continues with this faux listening to the very end, to great comedic effect.

Here’s the kicker (spoiler alert): At the end, Ronathan demonstrates that he did, in fact, hear and understand every aspect of the exchange. But poor Murph sure didn’t “feel” heard. In fact, he kept saying through the entire episode, “I feel like you’re not listening to me.”

How to improve your listening

So, if it’s not about technique or style or method, how can you become a more effective listener?

First, it’s just like any other skill: it takes practice.

Below are a few things that I’ve found helpful on my continuing journey to become a better listener. Perhaps some of these might be helpful for you as well. (NOTE: these are fairly simple concepts, but they not necessarily easy):

  • In every interaction, ask yourself if the other person feels heard.
  • Open your awareness and listen to the whole person, not just the words they say. Listen to the emotions behind the words, and the intentions and deeper purpose underneath it all. (More on this in a future post.)
  • Notice how the voices in your head (especially the voices of ego and critic) interfere with your listening.
  • Make a purposeful choice to focus on what the other person is saying, rather than the stream of consciousness in your mind (what the late Thích Nhất Hạnh called “radio nonstop thinking”)

When other thoughts crowd out your capacity to listen, try these tips:

  • Acknowledge your internal dialogue (e.g., the thoughts about what you want to say, or other distracting thoughts that might surface).
  • As other thoughts surface, don’t resist them; rather, simply acknowledge them and let them go, like releasing a balloon into the air.
  • Then, turn back to what the other person is saying and focus on truly hearing them out. Listen so the other person FEELS heard.

Effective listening is not complicated. But it’s also not easy. It takes practice. Yet this one skill is the key to success in every area of life.

We’re listening

What are some of YOUR biggest challenges to effective listening? What have you found most helpful in becoming a better listener? Leave your comments below or reach out to connect. We’d love to hear from you.

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