How do you listen?

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.  Pentagon spokesman Robert McCluskey.

How do you listen? It may seem like a funny question. Some people might say, “With my ears”. Listening, and I know most of us have heard a lot about this, is way more than just using our ears.  

The communication process

The reason we are listening is that someone is trying to communicate with us. Communication can be described as a 6 step process.

Idea is formulated → Idea is encoded into speech → message delivered → message heard →  message is decoded → meaning is generated (the process starts over in the other direction).

Who thinks about this every time they talk? More of us might want to, in order to have better conversations - it’s so important, especially as a leader.  First-time managers need to understand this deeply. This is such a big process and it’s one that can go wrong, or not go as intended, at any of the steps. But, we’re talking about listening today which is just one part of the communication process.

The skills to listen well

If you are the person decoding the message, how do you ensure that you’re decoding it properly? How do you know you are making meaning that was intended? That's where listening comes in and that's where we, as managers of people, need to have amazing listening skills. How are your listening skills?

I know that as a manager I never forget that six-step communication process. I also know that there were times when I didn’t decode messages properly - I was pressed for time and only partially listened; the person in front of me had triggered me earlier in the day; I felt they were off task and was thinking about how to bring them back on task and so on and so on. My responses in these cases (thankfully this poor listening style wasn’t my normal) were way less than they could have been had I been listening instead of just hearing.

Listening is active and involves your ears and your eyes and other senses.  Listening is about hearing the words, seeing the person in the moment, being intuitive about what is not being said and pulling it all together to make meaning of what’s going on, right now.

The push to respond

The challenge here though is that “we” want speedy.  We want a response. You (the manager of people) are expected to know.  There is “value” in having a snappy answer, or response. It means, “you know your stuff!” But, what does it mean for the person standing in front of you trying to communicate with you?

As the manager and especially as a first-time manager you will feel the need to respond. Things move fast and a slower response generates a kind of judgement - I’ve had people just talk over me when I was formulating a considered response to someone in the conversation.

Why it works!

Listening, and the way you listen, sets the tone of your work and team environment.  The way you listen can convey merit and value to the other person - or not. It can convey a sense of safety and lack of judgement - it can keep people open and in a creative space.  That creative space helps solve challenges and generate new ideas. This type of environment is a boon to you, the manager of the team! Mastering (practicing and practicing) this skill will set you up and allow you to lead in a positive, supportive way. "Are ya listening?!"