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Have We Really Forgotten How to Listen?

A quick online search of this question yields a plethora of articles that would suggest we have. That we’re too preoccupied with ourselves and our own agenda. That over time we’ve morphed into a population of ‘tellers’ and ‘shouters’ who are obsessed with control and being right. That we have no time nor reason to even entertain the messages others are trying to convey to us. “It’s the millennial generation”, some claim. “It’s the baby boomers’ doing”, according to others. However who caused this decline may not be the point worth addressing.


Implicit in this argument is the assumption that we were much better listeners at a time before this decline occurred. Unfortunately, the details of people’s exemplary listening skills from that time are rarely illustrated, and so little evidence is given to substantiate the claim that we have sabotaged our ability to effectively listen. So while it may be easy to declare that we’ve lost our listening capabilities and attribute blame to an ill-defined cluster of people, let’s not immediately assume that it’s true.



Instead, we could consider reframing the problem. Perhaps we haven’t necessarily forgotten how to listen or gotten worse at it; perhaps the fast-paced, results-driven world we now live in renders it more difficult to make time to listen. And where fast-paced, results-driven communications occur, it’s advantageous to be as transactional and efficient as possible – which comes at the cost of effective and deep listening. In work, there’s a trade-off that overburdened managers are often forced to make: to be people-focused or to be task-focused. The former allocates time to people’s development, coaching, and relationship-building which, if effective, are nurtured by effective listening. The latter, however, is often where managers are forced to focus their attention, which comes at the expense of their people management and subsequent opportunities to listen.


The other explanation is that perhaps there is an even greater demand for higher-quality, effective listening than ever before. As we gradually press forward as a society that celebrates and recognises all kinds of diversity, enabling voices that may have once been silent and making them feel heard is at the forefront of that movement. The belief is that anyone anywhere could have a valuable opinion or message that they want to share, which requires a listening ear. At the same time, we live in a society that addresses mental health and personal issues much more openly than in the past. As people are more free and willing to express their emotions and personal opinions with others, again, other people must be there to listen. The demand for listeners has risen to an unprecedented high and we’re expected to match that demand.


We might be a little out of practice because the opportunities are scarcer, or maybe the demand for great listeners is at an all-time high. Either way, there are small, practical changes that we can make to truly enhance our listening abilities. First and foremost, we can actively devote more time to truly listening to what others have to say, rather than keeping the conversations brief and transactional. In work, it may feel that we’re fruitlessly wasting time in a conversation where we could be doing something more productive, but research consistently shows that when employees feel listened to, they’re more engaged and committed; when they’re more engaged and committed, the organisation benefits from improved performance. So, sacrificing a little time now pays dividends in the long run.


This then links to a second point, which addresses how we listen. It’s not always necessary to quickly chime in and offer our response or opinion when someone is sharing their thoughts. In fact, the power of being a pure listener offers many benefits and is one of the underlying principles of coaching. Not only do we hear what people say, but we perceive the feelings and emotions that help us paint a much richer picture of the speaker's message. Often simply holding off, embracing moments of silence and being there to purely listen can be a cathartic and productive experience for both parties.


Contrary to what many articles claim, it's unlikely that we've ‘forgotten’ how to listen. The opportunities and demands for listening may have changed over time, and perhaps there is now simply a demand to be better listeners than we ever were required to be before. We just might benefit from stretching our abilities that little bit further.

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