Better Listening Skills

Something interesting is happening and I can’t determine why.

There are 2 explanations that I think are most likely. And it could be a combination of the two, not just one or the other.

I had a job interview the other day and as usual, I was asked why I was sitting there interviewing. Meaning: how did I arrive at that point in my life and why am I interested in that particular position with that particular firm? If you’re ever going to be interviewed for a job, that’s the question you can count on, and you should have a seriously good response prepared.

So I began answering it, and answer it I did. For what seemed like what took an hour. I didn’t speak for an hour, but if you’ve ever spoken publicly, you know how time becomes distorted and while you feel like you have been speaking for days, it in fact was only 3 minutes. So I’m intently aware of the time/space warp that happens when my mouth begins moving. I always want to be considerate of my audience’s time and patience and attention span, so speaking concisely, with interesting interjections, and trying not to “um” and “er” as I have the habit of doing is a big factor.

I’ve been interviewing a lot lately, so I’ve gotten my “elevator speech” somewhat under control. It varies depending upon the person I’m speaking to, the question I’m answering exactly, and the time context I have. I’m not going to prattle on at the end of an hour-long meeting, because that’s not the time for that. We’ve exhausted the opportunity for it. And it’s usually something that comes up at the very beginning anyway.

After hitting the highlights and points that should be mentioned spanning my work and school years that amount to decades, I apologized for being so long and wanted to assure my interviewer I also was a listener. Far more so than a speaker, for sure. That’s hard to do after completing an interminable monologue. (Just like this introduction is beginning to seem unnecessarily long.)

I’ve realized there’s a good way to frame this skill, though. And that’s by when being asked about strengths, to incorporate it into being to “net things out,” as I’ve been described as being able to do well. What that means is to filter out the noise and recognize what’s crucial and the crux of the issue, which makes it infinitely easier to devote resources to finding a solution. And when you deal in strategy as I do, that’s a primary goal I always maintain.

Immediately after this interview, I began finding articles all across the web about listening. At first blush “listening” sounds like one of those abilities that everyone has, should have, and can do effortlessly. To insinuate otherwise is even offensive. Yes, we all have ears and a brain. Duh!

I don’t mean any offense. What I am getting at is that some people know how to listen and what to listen for and how to organize and file that information to network with other knowledge quickly and in a hyper-productive manner. Then communicate back to the people that need to receive it, in a way they can listen and work with it productively.

To do that takes wisdom, practice, a heightened ear for a massive, varying, and abstract vocabulary, and training akin to that of a classical music composer. In other words, it doesn’t happen overnight. And it also needs to be something honed often. If you don’t practice it frequently, the ability erodes quickly I believe. Just like playing an instrument. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

I also juxtapose this type of listening with what my 5-year-old daughter does, and I did as a child, and we all do. Because we don’t have the wisdom, attention span, knowledge, vocabulary, and all the rest to listen properly and apply what we’ve heard, and learned, from the incoming communication. We prepare for what we want to say next instead of listening to how the other people are responding. Some people, like my daughter, will just blurt it out and interrupt. That’s forgivable for a 5-year-old. But it’s a bad habit for an adult and displays an unwillingness or inability to listen at all. It makes you wonder how much information they actually are receiving in any given dialogue, speech, or possibly valuable opportunity to learn.

So here are two such articles that came across my radar days after that interview from two organizations I tend to respect and follow: McKinsey Consulting Group and Harvard Business Review. (Which is a different, although related, organization from Harvard University.)

Why these suddenly caught my attention may be that it’s a timely topic and just a coincidence. There’s no shortage of articles being pumped out about empathy, EI, and other hot topics in the “Leadership” category. Another possibility is that it’s a result of psychological phenomenon and the same as when you buy a new car, suddenly you see your same new car everywhere you look. It’s a desire for self-assurance that you have made a correct decision, hinging on some other psycho ingredients that form our human brains and tune them to keep us sane. Or at least comfortable with who we are as our “selves.”

So take a crack at these articles. I believe they are on-target.

* Are You Really Listening? –

The executives guide to better listening

Both of these organizations have tons of great resources.

McKinsey’s Download Hub