Coaching: Listen Up

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm

Have you ever been told you’re a poor listener? Listening is undoubtedly the most critical communication skill, in business and personal life.
Still, academic classes at all levels slide over the teaching of listening skills. There seems to be an assumption that if your hearing is working OK, then you will do all right at listening.
Many of my clients want to become better listeners. Sometimes it’s because they’ve received feedback from a boss, or from a bunch of people on a 360-degree review. I imagine when they go home with that story, the spousal response goes something like, "How many times have I told you that! You never listen to me!"
Keen listening can save a job or a marriage, or a relationship with a customer. In fact, good listening may be the reason you formed that relationship with the customer in the first place, made the first sale because you really "got it," understood what the customer needed and offered just that.
They say King Solomon was asked, "What is the greatest gift?" He answered immediately, "A listening heart."
There are many degrees of listening, but the one we encounter so seldom and remember so well, is when someone listens with complete attention. That’s a rare and difficult thing to do in our society. We entrepreneurs especially are in high gear, juggling a bunch of problems, opportunities and new ideas. Our attention is parceled out and jumps from one thought to the next and back again in rapid-fire mode. We’re used to listening with just a sliver of attention – and hoping no one notices that we are so preoccupied.
I’ve identified some of the major obstacles that get in the way of our offering attention more fully to others, or in other words, giving the gift of real listening. I’ve found a few ways to reduce these obstacles as well and offer them to you to try out.
The biggest block to listening is probably the constant chatter in our own heads. Our communication lines are busy with our word jumbles, and no one else can get through with a clear signal. Everyone has her own brand of this mental word jam. Some people replay old conversations or rehearse ones to come. Some repeat the endless items on a to-do list. Some cloud the channels with constant worry, the "what if" thoughts.
We’re creative folks, and we can create any number of ways to draw attention away from real life in the moment. That ability is actually useful in some situations – but it sure reduces our ability to listen fully.
So what can we do about this? I think the first step is to tune in to your particular style of occupying your mind, thus your attention. Spend some time checking this out, without judging yourself. You may learn something important.
Then I invite you to practice giving yourself peace of mind. Meditation is a great help. Really being present in nature is as well. It is all about presence and getting out of the vocabulary of thinking and into music, art, prayer, meditation – whatever relaxes your brain and erases all the thought "junk" that wears on you and separates you from giving your attention to the people around you. It takes some time to accept the fact that we can control what goes on in our minds, imperfectly, yes – but much more so than most of us realize.
Another major obstacle to listening is what I call "the voting mind." In this mode – and we all have been in this mode – we are only listening to the extent that we are quickly shaping our own retort to what we hear. We keep our attention busy preparing our counter-attack. Now again, this strategy is useful in some situations. It is probably helpful if you’re on a debating team or if you are an attorney engaged in litigation. In business and personal life, it only creates distance between you and others.
So what can we do about the voting mind? The first step is to let go of having to be right. Oh, such a big step and such relief when we actually achieve it. My clients often get to the point of laughing at themselves, at how they are so attached to being right. In most instances, if we win the debate, the relationship loses. Certainly we lose the quality of connection we want with colleagues, direct reports, family members, superiors and customers – any relationship in our personal and professional lives.
Another major obstacle in the way of keen listening is stress. The stress may come from fatigue, emotional hangovers, overwork, stifled dreams – the source doesn’t matter. We simply are not available for full listening if we are held hostage by stress. Of course, one of my constant suggestions is increased self-care. I advocate extreme self-care – and for the most altruistic reasons. If you don’t take care of yourself, the assumption is that it is someone else’s job to take care of you.
It is your job, and perhaps your No. 1 job, to take wonderful care of yourself. Only then are you truly available to serve others.
The other strategy to use when stress blocks your listening ability is simply to speak your truth.
"I want to really listen to your concerns, and the fact is, right now I’m preoccupied with a family crisis. Can we talk tomorrow?"
The same thing if you get home after a horrific day and cannot give your attention to kids, spouse, the family dog, whatever. The dog may not get it, but the rest of the family will.
"I’m not going to be good company for a while tonight. Just have to sort through some critical stuff that came up today."
Any time that you cannot offer the gift of listening – just announce it. For heaven’s sake, don’t try to fake it. Anyone over three months old can sense when you are offering only a sliver of attention. Sometimes that’s the best you can do. Just announce that.
The more you practice attending fully to those around you, even events around you, the more you will feel plugged in. I guarantee you will learn more from others, and they will learn more from you.

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay and
can be reached at (414) 332-0300, or at
The firm’s Web site is

August 5, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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