“You can listen as well as you hear” ~ Mike Rutherford, “The Living Years”
Full Disclosure: People who know me also know that sometimes when I get talking it’s often hard to shut me up… I know, right?
But to be fair, my spoken enthusiasm is a bi-product of my passion for all things cool, fun and exciting; and so whenever good stuff comes my way in the form of great books, movies, awesome new music, etc. I can’t wait to share it all with my friends and so it’s blah, blah, blah!
Ditto whenever I discover a new life hack or strategy; if something’s helped me out in some unique way, I totally want to share it so that as many people as possible can benefit from it so guess what? I’ll uncontrollably blabber away like a crazy man to anyone and everyone who will listen. (This probably explains why I’m writing a blog AND a book!)
And while these days I’m reasonably disciplined in keeping my verbal excitement under control, this wasn’t always the case. As a kid I really didn’t understand boundaries and would blather on and on and on, not realizing my verbal diarrhoea was often (a) pissing people off, which in turn was (b) did me no favours – none at all.
I’d yammer on and on, totally clueless that I wasn’t letting anyone else get a word in; something that didn’t fly at home, especially around the dinner table. Mom and Dad were constantly telling me to “stop talking” or yelling that “You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason!” – anything to get me to shut my motor mouth up.
And although their delivery was curt and crass, this message would eventually turn out to valuable many years later, when I entered the business world.
As an excitable kid, I didn’t understand that not everyone saw things in the same way as I did, so I’d just keep saying them over and over again. I call this the “If I say it loud enough and keep repeating myself I will win you over to my way of thinking” method.
As an adult I had to learn that true communication is a two way street that comprises of both talking AND listening; and that the latter skill is actually the most important of the two. It didn’t take long for me to realize that (a) I was totally unskilled as a listener and (b) if I wanted to be successful with people, I’d need to become much better at it.
Thanks to a generous mentor, I soon began to understand that when one person dominates a conversation it actually robs other people of their voices, and doesn’t allow them the opportunity to share their views and opinions on topics.
“In fact” I was told, “One-way conversations are not conversations at all; they are more preached sermons than exchanges of dialogue. And this style isn’t good management.”
His message to me was clear: My communication style was too much Jim Jones and not enough Jim Rohn – a realization that hit me like a hammer between the eyes. My mentor kindly caulked up my behaviour to “Youthful enthusiasm”; a kinder, gentler synonym for “Inexperienced loudmouth”.
Embarrassed, my parent’s words continued to echo in my head… “You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason!” – Message received, loud and clear.
And so with this I began the arduous process of learning to apply the two-to-one ratio of ears to mouth, and you know what happened? I discovered that what most people consider as LISTENING rarely involves actually HEARING what other people are saying, and not just going through the motions. I also learned that this is a huge problem for a lot of folks.
It turns out that many people confuse the act of “not speaking” when someone else is talking with listening or hearing the other person, when all they are really doing waiting for the other person to finish talking so they can jump right back in to the conversation.
The problem with this is that they are too focused on their next statement (which is currently rolling around inside their head) to actually hear – really hear – what the other person is saying. In fact, one time I had to tackle this exact problem with a particularly stubborn employee.
The Positive Effect of Two-To-One Listening to Talking Ratios
I was managing a restaurant where the chef was insanely talented; however the team that worked under this command totally despised him. Their distain for him was so strong that rather than being a co-operative work place the kitchen was always full of discontent and tension. This struck me as weird as basically he was a good guy.
When asked why they didn’t like him, all the staff said the same thing: If they ever tried to express an opinion or suggestion he’d simply talk over them, dismissing whatever they said and then replace it with a “better idea” than what they had presented.
Oh, and without fail, he would always make sure to have the last word. They all summed up their common complaint with the same five words: “He never listens to us.”
No wonder his people couldn’t stand him! Whenever the staff would talk, rather than hearing what they had to say he’d use the time to form a superior rebuttal, then squash their input! This was his idea of listening to the staff; one that clearly wasn’t working.
I met with him to discuss the problem, and it quickly became clear what the problem was. In no way was he trying to be a “know-it-all” or a workplace bully; in fact, far from it. He was just a young guy in his first real leadership role and thought he wouldn’t be taken seriously if he didn’t have all the answers or the final word on every topic.
Once he understood the gravity of the situation, we put a plan in place to correct it by meeting each week and working on his listening skills. I’m proud to say he eventually became a very good listener; and not only did his relationship with the staff improve tremendously, but he actively implemented many of their suggestions as well.
It reminded me of Jim Quigley, CEO of Deloitte who set a goal of only talking 20% in meetings. He said: “One of my objectives is listening. Many times you can have bigger impact when you know what to ask rather than what to say. I don’t learn anything when I’m speaking. I learn a lot when I’m listening.” Great advice for us all!
Why We Must Learn To Listen
Truly listening to people allows them to tell us what is in their hearts, and allows them to honestly express their innermost thoughts and feelings without interruption. It ensures that their message is heard, fully and completely; and being sincerely heard is something that all humans want and crave.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the people who pay thousands and thousands of dollars each year to talk to therapists, simply because they need and desire someone – anyone – to listen to them without interruption, insult, retribution or criticism. They seek a calm rational dialogue that is supportive; something all dialogue should be.
Here’s a better idea: Let’s all just support each other by becoming better listeners. Let’s allow people to express themselves and have their messages be heard with clarity and precision; and above all, let’s show the utmost respect for people by hearing their messages without interruption; and then when the time is right replying with respect.
For my money, that’s a good use of both ears and one mouth if there ever was one.