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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:

  • After IBM-Canada's stock fell and 5,000 of its 13,000 workers were laid off in the early 1990s, the company realized the need to listen to its customers; it made customer relationship management a top priority. IBM accomplished a major turnaround: Its workforce is back at over 13,000.

  • Abbott Laboratories' sales techniques turned off customers until the company implemented a program to mend its relationships and improve listening skills among employees through targeted training. As a result, 200 problem accounts have improved since 1995, resulting in $9 million additional sales.

  • Neil Kadisha, President and CEO of HPM, a manufacturer of injection molding and extrusion machines based in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, explains his policy: "No one has a thing to fear about coming to me and lodging a complaint or making a suggestion. In all of my companies, janitors to the highest level of management can come to me .... We manage by respect, not by fear. We respect our employees' opinions and suggestions. They have the right to get upset and angry, and they have the right to be heard."

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

  1. Ignoring. Absence of listening. Dismissing a communication. Includes not letting the speaker finish, not respecting the speaker, or fidgeting with paper or pencil.

  2. Pretending. Creating the outward impression of listening but not hearing.

  3. Manipulating. Influencing or controlling a person’s communication with one’s own unspoken comments, gestures, facial expressions, sounds.

  4. Projecting. Responding to one’s own interpretation of what was said, rather than to what was actually said.

  5. Selecting. Hearing a person’s communication through a filter of prior judgments or decisions.

  6. Respecting. Hearing, and responding to, what is actually being said. (Envoys of the ancient Greek city-states for example were not to interpret what was being said. They were ‘tape recorders’: their job was to listen carefully to statements of the host state and to recreate them faithfully to the home state.)

  7. Empathizing. Hearing the underlying intention, not simply the apparent content, of another’s communication. Enables a response that facilitates the other’s intention. What point is she or he struggling to make, what issue to resolve? Requires standing in another person’s shoes.

  8. Generating. Highest level of listening. Evoking the speaker’s best qualities through active, generative listening.

Table 2: Listening Tips

  • Remember that your advice is usually noise in their ears.

  • Focus on what the other says without thinking of what you will say next.

  • Listen without a point of view. Put your tendency to evaluate on hold.

  • Listen and mentally recreate exactly what the other is saying.

  • See things from the other’s point of view.

  • As you listen to a person, try hearing her or his underlying intention.

  • Listen for "gold"; hear whatever the person is saying as the solution.

  • Listen one minute longer than may be comfortable.

  • Experiment with listening. What results can you produce through listening rather than talk?

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