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"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." M. Scott Peck

Communication is at the core of strong organizations. In fact, communication is the thread that holds all pieces of an organization together. The ability to communicate effectively increases morale, improves culture, and boosts the bottom line. When leaders take steps to build these skills within the organizations, the results are game changing. However, through no fault of their own, leaders may fall victim to breakdowns in communication, specifically listening. How can they cope with the rare lapse?

Shut Up and Listen

In "Why Most Leaders Need to Shut Up and Listen," Forbes' contributor Mike Myatt writes, "Want to become a better leader? Stop talking and start listening." On the surface, this advice seems solid enough. Upon scrutiny, though, you'll find it fails to address some of the nuances with which leaders are faced. What if, for instance, you have, in fact, shut up, but still didn't listen?

Consider this typical scenario: you are in a meeting with a client. While not yet noon, this is your third meeting of the day. It is understandable that your thoughts stray, if only for a second, to other matters. What you want from the Thai place down the street. What you should get for your spouse's birthday.

Research shows that 90% of people daydream in meetings. You would never do that; no, you're just thinking... about something else. And then you hear, ", what do you think?"

What Do You Think?

Failing to listen to clients, employees, and other stakeholders can have profoundly negative effects on your ability to lead with authority. What do you do? Your first instinct may be to apologize profusely, saying, "I'm so sorry. Could you repeat that?"


On a personal level, you don't want to convey that you haven't been listening. It can cause the other person to feel invalidated, even angry. You also have to ask yourself just how much good listening would have done you anyway.

University of Minnesota researchers, for example, studied thousands of students and professionals, each of whom had to listen to a short talk given by a faculty member. They found that immediately after listening to someone talk, the average person remembers only half of what he or she has heard... even if they were listening carefully.

Listening is clearly hit or miss; there is simply no way of knowing if it would have helped you with your client.

University of Kansas professor Suzanne Rice writes, "Listening and not listening... are not opposites. They are phases in an ongoing process of listening in which the very fact that we are sometimes not listening can actually help us perform better."

The key to aligning listening and not listening is to never give the impression you are not listening. How? Let's go back to our example. The client asks, "So, what do you think?" Try one of the following:

  • Validate the client's perspective and opinion. Say, "What do you think?"
  • Emphasize the client's power and responsibility. For example, "We all have our own ways we'd handle it, of course, but ultimately, it comes down to you."
  • Relate to other experiences. Forge a connection and ensure that your client doesn't feel as though his problem is so unique it is beyond solving. "You wouldn't believe how many of my clients are saying the same thing."
  • Be the voice of reason. You may have to go back and help the client clarify the situation. For example, "I think we need to stop, recalibrate, and move forward from there." It doesn't really even mean anything, yet it conveys the impression that you were listening.
  • Get to the heart of the matter. Forget "facts" and what your client actually said. How did he say it? Respond with, "I can tell that you're frustrated/angry/excited, etc." People typically respond with more information on how they do feel, including essential details.
  • Create a vacuum. This is an old journalism trick: don't say anything. Silence creates a vacuum, and nature abhors a vacuum. So do most people. Your client will try to fill it in with more detail or a quick recap of their previous statement.
  • Leave the room/hang up. You can't answer if you're not there!

Mastering the art of appearing to listen is every bit as important as listening itself. Humans are fallible, even leaders; it is critical that you develop the skills necessary to "fake it till you make it." Or just plain fake it when you missed half the conversation.

Smile. Relax. Laugh. Take a moment to enjoy the little things - like this article (you didn't think I was SERIOUS, did you?). In the words of Sheldon Cooper, "Bazinga!" Enjoy your day. AND, next time, truly listen!!


Larry Hart

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