Is there a more important yet neglected skill than listening? Our hunger to speak is only surpassed by our thirst to be heard. Yet, in our academic work and workplaces, we focus far more on what we have to say.
Indeed, as was first noted by the Greek philosopher Epictetus “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This has since been practiced and quoted by many others including the most successful football manager in the world. Sir Alex Ferguson, the former manager of Manchester United, posits in his book on leadership that to work well with people and make good decisions: seek to listen and understand first then talk or act second. A biography of former president Barack Obama, Promised Land, discloses that his decision-making process for the most wicked of problems was centered on “emptying out his ego..(to) really listen.” This allowed him to both solve well and sleep well — knowing no one in his position could have made more informed decisions.
However, listening is tough. Academia’s career progression hoops send subtle but insidious messages about the low cultural value of listening. Esteemed scholarly outputs are heavily skewed to the production of our utterances. Across publications, conference presentations, keynotes, and even through teaching and mentoring – what we have to say is prime. Listening is confused with having nothing to say, or even worse, not knowing, a problem that is threaded through our cultural systems, scholarly identities, and egos.
This explains the relatively lower assigned value and frequency in academia of delicately opening conversations to be driven by others. Of promoting self-discovery in students and colleagues via true coaching. Of holding silence with meticulous discipline to truly listen to what is said and left unsaid by others, and to better understand what values and fears are behind their perspectives.
If listening is less common and less esteemed, it is equally less understood. Perhaps listening is simply unimportant to academic work or workplaces?
Yet, people and academic workplaces that don’t make conscious efforts to listen well and challenge their certainty and biases become rife with misunderstanding, suspicion, conflict, and low trust — which makes organizational change and community growth fraught. Sound familiar?
Vast swathes of unnecessary and damaging personal and interpersonal conflicts and angst in academia have at their core the wholly wrong and unsubstantiated sense that others are fundamentally different from us in their values, motivations and goals. The echo chamber of our closest trusted others often reinforces the wholesomeness and veracity of our misjudgements.
Because of this, listening is the toughest of skills because it requires us, fundamentally, to not only be open to others, but to challenge our own biases, identities, and ego. The new understandings can stand to undermine our own often long-established sense that I or we are “right” and “they are wrong” both morally and factually. There is often no scarier place.
If we were to truly listen to others’ expectations of us, to the pressures on others, or the perfectionism we’re all drowning in, we would act, interact, and feel differently, to our collective benefit. As we navigate complex jobs in complex workplaces, prioritizing time and energy to really listen to each other matters because it grows community and connection amid the intense pace and travails of our sometimes messy and very human lives.
Listening is a learnable skill, not a fixed ability. Anyone can become an effective or more effective listener, even in the most challenging of contexts. What then should you do to become a next-level listener?
Assess your listening ability
New York Times journalist Kate Murphy in her book, You’re not Listening provides a dedicated primer for listening better. Covering a plethora of listening terrain from neuroscience, child development, cognition, and big data, Ms. Murphy makes a compelling case for the primacy of listening in a very noisy world and how developing your listening skills and practices will help not only others but also yourself.
Ms. Murphy challenges people who (mistakenly) think they are good listeners. To assess your listening ability: assess how often you catch yourself thinking ahead, judging in the moment, or being distracted when someone is speaking. Consciously try to focus intensely on the listener, their words, their actions, the silences, what is implied, and what seems unsayable. Focus all your attention on them. Remember: listening is not the same as simply waiting to say what you have to say.
Instead of making oblique “ahh” or “um” listening noises or simply nodding, broadcast your commitment to listening by asking good questions, and supporting the listener to share more of themselves and their perspectives.
Eliminate distractions when listening
Get out of the habit of having your cellphone available, looking at your watch, or answering calls or messages mid-conversation. Your sole focus should be on the person you are listening to. Make listening easier for yourself by minimizing avoidable distractions.
Make listening a reflective practice
Reflect on your past experiences as a listener — what aspects of listening have you done well? What aspects should you improve most? Prioritize aspects of listening that you want to develop around, and consciously work on these in some of your future conversations.
As with developing any skills, seek feedback after conversations from peers and students, especially those you didn’t immediately align with or feel inclined to listen to. Encourage them to share feedback with you on your listening behaviours. What do you do well? What can be improved? Did they feel fully seen in the conversation? If so, why so? If not, why not? Consider and identify which facets of your listening practices you will prioritize growing.
Listening well is not easy but it’s worth it. Listening facilitates others to feel seen, understood, and cared for. But while we can listen to ourselves or our bodies, it’s really only through listening to others that we learn from their perspectives, which leads to fostering better connections, to create the working cultures that we crave.