Studies in many sectors over the years suggest that many, perhaps most, people believe their listening skills are “above average.” However, their family members as well as co-workers and subordinates in the work environment often have a different view. Research suggests that most people forget about half of what other persons have said right after their conversation concludes (Listening is an Overlooked Leadership Tool). Very few persons in most family or organizational settings are rated by others as being good listeners. Truly great listeners — especially in a world where nearly everyone is inundated by increasing channels and volumes of information — are quite rare, but deeply appreciated.
As a young officer in the USAF Medical Service early in my career, I met the first person I’d ever known who possessed truly exceptional listening skills. This was a senior Colonel, a physician, who was responsible for all of the medical facilities in the Eighth Air Force, a large division of the USAF Strategic Air Command. In our initial encounter — and consistently over a long period when I was a junior member of his leadership team — I was struck by his remarkable
ability to focus his attention on whatever topic we were discussing. Even though I knew he always — repeat, always — had far more important priorities on his platter than whatever report or issue I was bringing to him, he invariably would concentrate on our agenda, listen attentively and respectfully, and engage in dialog as needed to provide whatever guidance or decision I needed to proceed with my work. His approach and the impact it had on my admiration for him
and my commitment to serve him well was powerful and durable. It also become apparent to me that his listening skills in all settings were a key ingredient in his sustained excellence in a very complex leadership role. People at all levels appreciated his approach and respected him as a leader.
In the decades since that experience, I have strived — from experience with many executives and from organizational and leadership literature — to understand the key characteristics of great listeners. Two of those key characteristics include:
- Focus. This is the ability to put other matters and distractions aside and focus your attention on the person(s) with whom you are interacting and what they are trying to discuss with you. To do this well requires steps such as putting your smart phone and other devices aside, not interrupting when the other person is talking, and looking
at them directly while they are speaking. If you actually follow these practices consistently — most people don’t — it will be clearly apparent to the person with whom you are talking. They are likely to be appreciative — and you are very likely to better understand what they are trying to communicate to you.
- Interaction. Effective listening involves more than just being silent while the other party speaks. It also involves interaction — asking questions to seek clarification, making comments that show you are hearing what the person is saying, and – when indicated — offering suggestions or ideas for the person’s considerations. In other words, excellent listening generally, if not always, entails some form of dialogue, an exchange of information, preferably in a conversational manner rather than silence or, at the other extreme, unilateral “pronouncements” that leave little or no space for further discussion.
So what about you? Have you thought about your listening skills recently? Are you focusing and interacting?
Many thanks to Dr. Larry Prybil for sharing your wisdom with us! Next week, we will continue learning from Larry in Part 2 with two additional key characteristics of good listeners!
Lawrence Prybil, PhD. LFACHE
Professor Emeritus, University of Iowa
Community Professor, University of Kentucky
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