Lessons in leadership: Listening

  • Published: Thursday, June 25, 2020

Dr. Ralph Nichols, considered the “father of the scientific field of listening,” pioneered the science of how to develop good listening skills. His research revealed that the average listener remembers only about 25% of what was said. According to Dr. Nichols, “The most basic of human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them." 

Leadership is all about communicating effectively, and listening ranks as the most important skill for a good communicator. Yet, few of us score high on listening skills. Worse, numerous studies indicate an interesting phenomenon: most of us significantly overestimate how good we are at listening. In one study, after listening to a ten-minute presentation, participants were asked to describe what they heard. Half could not remember even moments after the talk, and 75% of participants could not recall the subject matter 48 hours later.

Lack of good listening extends into our relationships, and it can be frustrating for all of us. In a recent class offered by University of Missouri Extension, Pam Duitsman asked participants to respond to this question: how do you feel when someone does not listen to you? Written feedback included: It makes me feel unimportant; devalued; unsupported; unmotivated; and I am not free to say what I want to say. When participants were asked to share how they felt about the person who was a poor listener, responses included: They are not empathetic; they do not care about me; they are arrogant; and I do not see them as an effective leader.

Studies show that poor listening may be becoming a cultural norm. Many are prepared to be outraged by another person’s comments before they even open their mouth. We witness this every day through media of all kinds -- people seem determined to not listen to one another, to care about their own opinion and no one else’s, to talk over one another, and to show blatant disregard for what was actually said in order to get the last word in.

When we refuse to listen to one another, trust dissolves, relationships become strained, and it becomes difficult to identify common ground. Not listening grows incivility. Surveys show that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe we have a civility problem, and most believe the increase in incivility is leading to violence. Incivility includes the use of aggressive, sarcastic or demeaning language and tone. Insults and overgeneralized criticisms of someone’s character generally follow. Research indicates that incivility has a profound negative effect on our mental and physical health, workplace productivity and retention of employees, and customer and personal relationships. When leaders model poor listening and incivility, the behavior spreads more readily, almost as a contagion.

Civility, on the other hand, is defined as polite, reasonable, respectful behavior and speech.  A willingness to disagree without degrading another in any way. To be able to be assertive, though not aggressive, in expressing what we think, while also being respectful of what others think. The best way to increase civility may be to practice our listening skills. Here are some tips:

  • Remain calm while the other person is speaking
  • Maintain eye contact with the one communicating
  • Pay attention and withhold judgment, with a goal to understand the message
  • Put aside any emotional responses or rebutting comments
  • Focus on facts rather than opinions and emotion
  • Identify common ground
  • When ready to respond, do so thoughtfully, respectfully, and gently

When you listen in this way, others will be more apt to listen to you as well. We can each do our part to listen, and treat others as we wish to be treated – even those with whom we do not agree. 

Writer: Pamela Duitsman

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Pamela Duitsman

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