The fine art of listening: The most neglected skill of professional development

Recently two very different people asked me similar questions. One came from the new owner of a golf course, of all things – a semi-private course with all the extras, including two restaurants and a pro shop. The other came from a dear nephew who, for just a couple of weeks has been in a new and very senior position with a huge global corporation.

Both people were in the process of gradually meeting all the folks who would be reporting to them. The “Hi, I’m your new boss” meetings. Both highly competent and smart, they were asking for a little coaching on how to present themselves at these meetings. I could answer their questions in one word: LISTEN.

Of course first I wanted to listen to these two. I especially wanted to know the outcome they sought from these first meetings. I learned that both wanted to plant the seeds for the development of trust and respect in the relationships with the new team members. I think true listening is the beginning of that development.

As long as I’ve been doing business coaching, I’ve believed that listening is the most neglected skill in the arena of professional development. Back when I was studying psychology in the ’70s, the hot thing was “active listening.” That translated into repeating back the speaker’s utterance, even in the same words. “What I hear you saying is…”. I felt then that this method taught people to be parrots. It made me a little crazy and I am very happy that it is now considered outdated.

The thing that makes real listening so difficult is that it requires your complete attention. A long time ago M. Scott Peck said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Anyone who has raised kids should have learned this from the little dears in their relentless attempts to get attention. Instead of, “Just a minute sweetheart,” if we truly listened for even one whole minute the child was very likely satisfied.

It is not easy to dump all those busy matters on your mind. Even more difficult than an open mind is an open heart. Listening and judging at the same time – well, that doesn’t even come close to getting the job done.

It is more than OK to clarify what you heard said, through paraphrasing and even being transparent about your own filters. You can share your interpretations – all in the name of clarification. It is always OK to ask for clarification as well through questions like “What do you think I meant by that?” Listening to body language will often give you feedback that tells you clarification is needed before you go on. Listen to the whole person.

When you are engaged in listening, it is a good idea to touch the other person’s words with respect, to validate what you heard. I’ve found that we can always do this with honesty no matter what if we value the relationship. Even if what I am hearing is contrary to my own belief system, even if I think it is ridiculous and I value the relationship with the person, I can respond with respect and honesty. It might be, “I am so curious about how you arrived at that point of view,” whatever is your truth.

Certainly, it doesn’t need to be said that those wonderful little smart phones need to be completely tucked away during real listening. I won’t even speak to anyone whose eyeballs are glued to a phone.

King Solomon is supposed to have said, “The finest gift of all is a listening heart.” I believe we can enrich our lives at home and at work by bestowing this gift frequently.

-Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee area resident. She can be reached at

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