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Are You Winning the Active Listening Game? Part I

good listener

Are You Winning the Active Listening Game? Part I

Are you winning the active listening game? Or have you been benched by distractions?

I’ll share a dark secret….

While leading a national charitable organization a few years ago, I noticed that, after our weekly staff meetings, I would emerge with a heightened level of agitation. By all measures, the meeting was productive, but something about those standing meetings annoyed me deeply. I sometimes had to go for a walk immediately afterward to get re-centered. I made a commitment to finding out what the issue was.    

After some introspection, it occurred to me that I spent most meetings waiting for other people to stop talking, impatiently awaiting my opportunity to speak. I came to realize the source of my irritation: I am not a good listener.

I had the courtesy not to interrupt my teammates (I’m not an entirely hopeless case), but I wasn’t listening to what they had to say. As they spoke, I would jot down new ideas, think up innovative directions, and refine concepts in my mind. I would look directly at them as they spoke – and hear nothing, as my attention was firmly rooted in the future, where my ideas were already coming to fruition. When they finished speaking, I would begin the delivery of my ideas – which were almost entirely of my making, since I hadn’t bothered to listen for valuable input from my team. Ever had to sit through a really bad movie? You simply daydream about all the things you could be doing – and how you’d like to be doing them now. I look back and cringe at the fact that my irritation may have made me the star of the ‘bad movie’ reel for my team…

Maybe you’re not naturally a great listener either. There are myriad reasons for being a poor listener. Perhaps you have an unhealthy relationship with your digital devices, allowing them to swipe your attention at any given moment, regardless of the activity at hand. Maybe you share my affliction, which I pejoratively call a future brain, in which you think you’ve pretty much got it all figured out, so why on Earth would you need input from others? Or maybe you’ve put so much effort into work that it has staked a permanent claim on your attention, even when you’re with loved ones. In the digital age, there are countless ways to become a bad listener, none of which require any real effort on our part.  

(Let’s be clear: It’s true that some folks are naturally better listeners than others, but great listeners must practice a great deal of discipline these days as well. Like you and me, they too own several smart devices, have numerous competing priorities, and face a constant barrage of bleeps and notifications. They may not have to work quite as hard at listening as I do, but the digital world seeks to capture everyone’s attention with equal vigor.)

With a bit of luck, a hard-earned dose of self-awareness, and an awesome mentor or two along the way, I’ve acquired a few tactics that have helped me to be a better – possibly even a good – listener. Some are common; others are quite literally ‘brain hacks’ that I devised that seem to work for my particular collection of gray matter. Next week, I’ll summarize these for you, so that you might sharpen your own listening skills – and suddenly realize that there’s a whole world of vibrant and valuable sound out there!

Most important was the initial acknowledgment that I was falling short, and that my skills needed improving. If you’re not entirely sure about the quality of your listening abilities, you might discuss this with your mentor. They’re in a unique position to offer real honesty about your skills and behaviors. And if you don’t have a mentor, talk to your HR Dept about securing one.

Mark Brodbeck, MSW

Director of Marketing at eMentorConnect. Passionate about people intent on elevating others, and other examples of enlightened self-interest. Frank Sinatra said it best: 'It's one world, pal. We're all neighbors.'