I'm pleased to share with you a key distinction that dramatically impacts how we see the world, how we make and sustain relationships, as well as our ability to lead, manage and work well with others.
Most of us have an intuitive understanding of the difference between biology and sound waves (hearing) and the ways we interpret and create meaning for ourselves (listening). Acquiring and deepening this distinction is critical for both professional effectiveness and individual well-being.
Leadership skills required for success today involve the capacity to generate trust and to be “fully present” – both of which depend upon the ways in which we listen.
Success in organizations – as well as in any set of relationships, for that matter – has a great deal to do with the level of shared commitment to common goals that is achieved. And shared understanding is a pre-requisite for shared commitment. Shared understanding is produced in conversation, which includes both speaking and listening.
Below are some ways of looking at the connections between listening and Results that I have found to be valuable:
Listening and hearing are 2 very different phenomena. Hearing is biological and has to do with a small bone vibrating by the eardrum. Listening is linguistic and has to do with active interpretation, with making sense, building an internal narrative, telling a story to myself.
Listening is generative and creative. All human communication is based on listening, on interpretation – not direct data transfer. Two people can hear the same thing, and absolutely listen something different! Because of this, for leaders and for everyone, it’s not what we say that’s so important – it’s what others listen (interpret).
The key questions are: Did we or did we not produce the interpretation we wanted to produce? Do we or do we not have shared understanding?
Organizations are all about coordinating action, the goal being impeccable coordination of action in support of commonly understood goals. And how well we coordinate action is directly tied to shared understanding of promises or commitments, as well as to how we manage our promises in an ongoing way. In this way, we can greatly reduce the poor productivity and resentment that usually accompany broken promises.
An “event” is not equal to your (or my) “explanation.” The event belongs to itself, while my explanation belongs to me, your explanation belongs to you. Some explanations are more powerful, more helpful, than others. Our explanations are created in our listening. And our explanations – not the events themselves – are the primary influencers of our Actions and Results in the world.
Listening with the intent to reply is not the same as listening with the intent to understand. Starting our internal response while the other person is still talking takes us away from being present and can dramatically impact how we interpret. Say to yourself “Quiet” to still your inner dialogue before important conversations.
Many of us have heard it put this way: Are you listening, or waitin' to talk?
Our listening is much more connected to 1) our moods and 2) our beliefs than is our hearing. And many of us are not very good observers of this, which limits our possibilities.
We are each 100% responsible for how we listen (how we interpret). And we are each partially responsible for how we get listened (how others interpret what we say). I cannot “make” you listen a certain way… but I can take as a given that you will interpret what I say, and can then take time for us to "check our listening" before we set off to coordinate action.
The invitation here is to understand and operate with this key distinction, and to focus both on improving your own listening... as well as on your ability to achieve shared understanding when you're speaking. Because there's no such thing as shared commitment without shared understanding coming first - and shared understanding is produced in how we and others speak to each other and listen to each other.