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|Be Still and Hear: The art and science of listening is good business|
Thomas D. Zweifel
NOBODY seems to listen anymore. Instead, talk abounds in our society. Day and night we are inundated with voices urging us to buy, to vote, to act, to change. From the workplace to our private lives, we are surrounded by people with something to say. By contrast, listening is an undervalued activity, so basic that it goes virtually unrecognized. Listening makes no noise, seems intangible, and leaves little evidence, while talk is loud and can be documented.
Although listening is a fundamental skill, we are not taught how to do it. We always see "important" people talk while "unimportant" people listen. Few how-to books, and virtually no schools, impart listening skills. There are debating clubs and championships for orators; there are no awards for excellent listeners.
But listening has real effects. We can make or break someone by the way we listen. Lack of listening can cause human damage and efficiency losses. Take business, for example. I frequently see situations where human initiative is crushed, performance breaks down, people are reduced to objects, mergers go awry, companies go bankrupt often because of poor communication and listening skills. And the problem is no secret. In a recent survey by Coleman Consulting Group involving 22,000 shift workers in varied American industries, 70 percent of the interviewees revealed that there is little communication with plant and company management; 59 percent said they believed their company does not really care about them another way of saying nobody is listening.
On the other hand, most of us have had experiences of being heard completely, of being understood by another. We remember rare moments when, regardless of what we said, our words were brilliant: They meant something to someone.
"Few motives in human experience are as powerful as the yearning to be understood," argues Michael P. Nichols, author of "The Lost Art of Listening."
"Being listened to means that we are taken seriously, that our ideas and feelings are known and, ultimately, that what we have to say matters," Dr. Nichols says. Not everybody is deaf to the importance of listening. Many businesses recognize that listening is not passive but an active mode of communication:
These companies, and others, are serious about the need to listen. They have incorporated listening into their business practices, often with significant improvements in performance and efficiency. Still, most have a mechanistic, black-and-white understanding of listening, treating it much like a light switch to turn on and off, and failing to see listening as the rich body of distinctions it can be.
Much like leadership, creativity, strategy, and other business skills, listening is a complex art, a skill that takes sustained effort to develop, but that will yield rich, surprising results for those who dare to make listening a life-long quest.
The Chinese character for the word "listening" means also "eyes, ears, you, undivided attention, love." The practice of listening consistent with this rich set of meanings may well be one of the most important leverage points in shaping our future.
If listening were a standard discipline taught and tested in schools and other institutions, major social issues and costs might be avoided not only in business, but also in politics, diplomacy, negotiation, marriages and relationships. In other words, amazing things can happen if we are still and listen for a change.
Thomas D. Zweifel, CEO of the Swiss Consulting Group, in New York City, is a coach and lecturer on leadership. He is at work on "The Leadership Manual" to be published by his company later this year.
Table 1: Levels of Listening
Table 2: Listening Tips
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