Listen with feeling

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Listen with feeling

Hearing happens—assuming you’re not hearing impaired. Hearing is the act of the ear perceiving sound.

Listening, on the other hand, is not automatic. It requires hard work that you must consciously do, as I’ve learned in my applied neuroscience program.

To listen, you need to concentrate so your brain can process meaning from words and sentences that you hear.

And to listen well, you need to focus on more than what’s being said. You need to pay attention to how it’s being said as well as why it’s being said.

Listening for the how and the why involves two different networks in the brain. Furthermore, these networks operate independently of each other, and can even compete with one another, so it takes effort to activate them, according to Dr. Bob Spunt of the California Institute of Technology. (For details, check out his 2013 article Mirroring, Mentalizing, and the Social Neuroscience of Listening in the International Journal of Listening.)

Once you understand the challenges of listening it’s easier to understand why so many of us are “hard of listening” rather than “hard of hearing.”

Yet that’s not an excuse for taking it easy and using your mouth more than your ears.

Recognize that being listening impaired can cause problems, personally and professionally.

For example, one of my clients just experienced a challenging situation in which the national office didn’t hear the cries of help that many in the field offices were making.

Several individuals in the field offices had become so exasperated that they were not being heard that they took a drastic, eleventh hour action to get the attention of the national office. It worked.

So at the annual face-to-face meeting, we made time in the packed schedule to talk about the issues that were the source of the distress. After several subsequent meetings over the next two days, the national office and the field came up with a mutually-acceptable solution.

My lessons learned from this experience? There are three of them.

1. Emphasize the important and value of listening. Don’t take it for granted that people are listening, especially empathetically. Being an empathetic listener requires you to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and consider the situation from their viewpoint. We have this capability as human beings to listen with feeling, but it takes time and effort to do so.

To encourage people, especially leaders to listen with feeling, help them adjust their mindset. For instance, for a new client that’s embarking on a listening tour, I’m coaching their leaders to think of themselves as “explorers” not as the “experts” who are the “smartest people in the room.” Their goal in their listening sessions is to hunt for nuggets that will help them better understand employees’ points of view and actions.

2. Build time into agendas for conversations, especially at face-to-face meetings. All too often these days, we pack meetings with one event after another with little time set aside to digest and discuss what we’ve heard or to have an open forum to talk informally about issues that are on our mind. As a result, important issues don’t surface, or if they do, we may not fully recognize them because we’re racing off to the next event. Instead, we’re talking past one another instead of with one another.

That’s what happened with my long-standing client. Over the past few years their annual meeting has morphed into a jam-packed event. There are no open forums or sanctioned downtime for people to sit and talk about key issues they’re facing now or see on the horizon. Having time to talk to clear the air and get to the root causes can be both therapeutic for individuals and beneficial for the organization.

3. Circle back to people to close the loop. This is more than active listening in which you paraphrase what you’ve heard someone say to show that you’ve understand them. Closing the loop involves showing that you’ve acknowledged that they’ve shared information and insights with you, you’ve processed their comments and you’re now updating them on what you plan to do. This may mean taking action, or deciding to hold off on doing anything right now for reasons you may or may not explain.

By circling back and closing the loop, you demonstrate that you respect the individuals who spoke up and their points of view. In my experience, employees in the workplace care more about being heard than getting their way. When they’re heard through empathetic listening, they feel valued.

For more tips on listening, check out this blog post Put on your listening ears.

And if it provides any solace, those of us in organizations aren’t the only ones who give listening short shrift. Social scientists and neuroscientists have neglected listening as a research topic, compared to other subjects, according to Dr. Bob Spunt.

Nonetheless, ignoring the skill of listening is no excuse. We all need to open up our ears and mind and listen more with feeling.

How can you improve your listening?