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The Listening Leader

The Listening Leader

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"You're not listening to me," she asserted in a strong tone. She was now looking at me defiantly. Her sudden, sharp words resonated in my ears like a metal ball bouncing off metal surfaces. They cut me painfully to the quick. My mind was a muddle of emotions: I felt unjustly accused, unappreciated, disappointed, misunderstood.

As pride kept me from seeing and feeling Her words cut me painfully to the quickbeyond myself, I wanted to tell her she was wrong. But my wife is not one to pull punches with me; she lets me know – flat out – how I'm coming across to her. Yet, I still wanted to rebut, to set right, to justify, to defend. But was I in touch at all with how she was feeling? Had I any notion of why she had felt cheated and emotionally shortchanged in our conversation?

How often, I wonder, is this scene – or one like it – played out in other relationships, selling situations, or peer interactions? Typically, in our daily exchanges, we know where we are going, but often don't take time to figure out where others are coming from. Besides, amid the rush and turmoil in today's workplace, we must often catch someone's words on the fly. It is hard to slow our minds and bodies down – and turn down our own inner radios – long enough to pick up the broadcasts of others. But let's go back to the previous scenario, and put the video on pause for a moment.

Suppose, instead of soothing my ego and defending against my wife's verbal accusations, I had the presence of mind and willpower to say something like "I'm sorry, hon. I didn't mean to cut you off." Or, "I'm sorry; I should have acknowledged how you felt." True, these words are coming after the fact. But now, she discerns a difference. And, by getting in touch with her feelings, this goodwill gesture could still cause a positive change in her attitude. Better yet, deployed earlier, such a welcome comment could defuse emotional turmoil – on either side of the exchange – before it starts causing problems.

On the surface, conversations are one way: the speaker gives, and the listener takes. Daily experience seems to bear this out, primarily because processing has long been a much higher priority for listeners than has participating. This fundamental dynamic has to change in its proportions before there can be progress.

Listening remains a very difficult role to do well because listeners must be focused enough to concentrate, but forthcoming enough to collaborate. It is axiomatic that listeners in conversation need concentration power strong enough to keep distraction at bay. But equally crucial, if less fully appreciated, is a reactivity and responsiveness vivid enough to create contact and maintain connection.

We have seen that listeners become outsiders of sorts. When we listen to someone speak, we overly focus on intake. We hold ourselves apart from the speaker, which makes full tracking difficult. Today, too many listeners are passively sitting by, forfeiting feedback and commitment to the speaker in favor of focus and self-interest. True to form, we contain ourselves, hardly releasing a smile.

How freely do we give ourselves to others?How freely do we give ourselves to others? For example, how often do we let someone know his other message is getting through? How readily do we acknowledge the other person's feelings? Do we check in with the speaker periodically to see whether we have properly understood the message and to show that we are trying to understand?

Many of us have an overriding tendency to restrict our listening essentially to intake. We are concerned, as we should be, about getting the message straight. But much of the time, we are so preoccupied with analyzing our own reactions and studying our own attitudes that we may hear much and see much, but absorb little. As listeners, we present quietly, stoic and unmoving. Rarely do we share our mental life with our partners. We appear to listen on condition of anonymity, as though anything we think or feel is privileged information.

But there is an odd imbalance here, because feedback is a key element of conversation, and every speaker knows it. When I was coauthoring an article with a research psychiatrist, I came to one of our brainstorming meetings proudly excited to share some paragraphs and ideas I had put together. After a few moments of sharing, I felt a certain discomfort. Ignoring it, I went on relating my thoughts until it became clear that something was wrong. When I came to a grinding halt and looked up at my coauthor, he was smiling and said, "I just wanted to see how long you would go on without any feedback or response." I suddenly realized that he had deliberately withheld all signs of his listening – all the customary signs we unconsciously expect a listener to provide as markers along the road we think our message is taking – not to be insensitive, but to make this point: What we all crave is to be listened to and to sense it.

Feedback accomplishes many things. It lets the speaker know whether, and to what extent, the message has been received and understood; but it also brings the listener back into the conversation. It may reflect and validate the speaker's feelings, but it also helps us weather our own emotional storms. Feedback and response contribute to a lively pace and make conversation more efficient. Such gestures tilt the interpersonal playing field in the listener's favor (actually, in both parties' favor). The two sides are bent to the same intent, and there is more collegiality in the performance. (Recall the last time someone reacted with emotion to your personal plight or good news.) As listeners, we're only half functioning when feedback is not given a high priority. We coexist in the conversation, but don't combine.

What we all crave is to be listened to and to sense itSomeone once observed, "Most people like to see reflections of themselves." When people hear their words through a listener's ears, or see themselves mirrored in the listener's face, they feel received, understood, even accepted. The two participants now function as true conversation partners, a duo. There is a sense of negotiation - the easy understanding of when it is one's moment to be top dog and when it is not. One might say that there is a new spirit of bipartisanship.

This is not always easy. Not all speakers have enough presence to hold our attention. Bu then, we don't always have enough presence to reflect it. As listeners, we owe speakers more than we give them on many occasions. One of the listener's unwritten mandates is to sometimes more fully acknowledge what the speaker is saying, to reflect back the speaker's mood. With this more direct contact between parties, there can be deeper understanding and closer relationships can develop.

Richard M. Harris, Ph.D. is the president and founder of Richard M. Harris Associates, a business communication training firm in Teaneck, New Jersey. He is the author of The Listening Leader, and is currently working on a new book on "persuasive speaking."
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Michelle K. Gross Silver Spring, MD June 15, 2012

May you be consoled It is with regret that I share with you the sudden passing of the article author, Dr. Richard M. Harris, shortly before Shavu'ot 5772 . The family plans to erect a tombstone in June at the Mount of Olives.

As a relative and as a friend, Dick gave me his best advice in my studies as a linguist: it still echoes in my ears.

Thanks for having published his work. Reply

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