Leader: It’s Time to Develop Your Listening Muscle

Listening is the hardest, best work you can do, but it takes practice.

For the record, I love Tom Peters’ latest book, The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work that Wows and Jobs that Last. It reads like a common-sense punch-in-the-nose reminder on pursuing excellence in the moment with every breath and action you and your colleagues take and make in your jobs (and lives).

Chapter 13: Listening, the Bedrock of Leadership Excellence, is where he introduces the idea that FIERCE attention should be mandatory reading for every CEO, manager, director, customer service professional and everyone else who draws a breath inside the organization.

In Tom’s words:

“FIERCE attention resides on a different planet. Fierce attention is a degree of attentiveness that is palpable, that makes you (the one responding to the comment or question) feel fully engaged and at the center of the universe and feel as if you’d damn well better say something useful and coherent.”

Paying attention and genuinely listening is a high form of showing respect. We learn, generate new ideas, solve problems, and help a person “feel felt.” Listening is the hardest, best work you can do, but it takes practice. The focus in this article is on ideas to help strengthen your listening muscle.

An Experiment in Fierce Listening

In my leadership workshops, I jump-start the module on listening with a fun exercise where there is just one instruction. I ask people to pair off and conduct a conversation where the only requirement is that they must start their next sentence with the last word in the statement given by their counterpart. For example:

Me: It’s going to be hot out there today.

You: Today is a big day. I plan on accomplishing one of my important goals.

Me: Goals can be a real motivating force.

You: Force is an interesting way to look at the power of goals. In my opinion, goals are essential for making forward progress.

Me: Progress demands actions.

… and so on.

Invariably, laughter breaks out as individuals struggle to create a coherent sentence out of the last word used by their partners. Nonetheless, conversations continue. When I debrief the exercise, the one consistent piece of feedback I get is: “I had to block out all other thoughts and laser focus on what my partner was saying.”

Imagine having to be laser-focused on the other individual. Perhaps, it’s even “fierce focus.”

Where Our Listening Rides off the Rails

Most of us are so busy in our heads while the other person is still talking that listening is almost an afterthought. The number one culprit is forming our answers in our minds while our counterpart is still attempting to make a point. This mental holiday is invariably followed by some version of what Tom references as the “Eighteen-Second Syndrome” (Eighteen seconds, according to one study, is the amount of time it takes a doctor to interrupt a patient describing symptoms.)

Whether it takes you 18 or eight seconds to step on someone’s message, it’s still a miserable habit that detracts from any hope for effective communication. Some of us do it in the form of completing the thought of our counterpart. And while this feels positive because we are showing we understand their point, it’s still stepping on the other person’s message.

  • What’s going on in your mind while other people are attempting to communicate with you? Are you processing on what you will say or, focusing on their message?
  • How many times a day do you interrupt or step on the messages from others during a typical day?

I run this exercise to make a point on listening and not to suggest you suddenly adopt the last-word tactic in your workplace conversations. Later in the workshop program, participants generate a listing of approaches they can use to strengthen their listening effectiveness.

9 Ideas You Can Use Today to Strengthen Your Listening Muscle

Of course we don’t have a real listening muscle, but we do have a brain that requires deliberate training over time to channel good practices and overcome bad habits. Here are nine ideas workshop participants identified to help strengthen this metaphorical muscle. (My personal favorite is number five.)

  1. Recommit every single morning to strengthening as a listener one encounter at a time. Taking time to isolating on the importance of listening as part of your morning mindfulness routine keeps the issue front and center.
  2. Adopt a beginner’s mind approach to your listening. Accept that everyone has something to teach you and make it your goal to learn from the exchange. The best leaders are constantly in learning mode.
  3. Use little data. Channel your inner-Deming and track the number of times you interrupt someone and strive to reduce this number every day. This is a great, data-focused approach to continuously improving as a listener.
  4. Be aware of the tendency of your mind to wander and strive to remain in the moment and laser focused. When you catch yourself drifting, immediately refocus on the other party. Difficult, but you can develop the discipline to recognize the drift and course correct.
  5. Develop the discipline to wait two seconds after your counterpart’s statement before responding. I love this simple but not simplistic approach above all others. I use this as a facilitator to control my exuberance when someone makes an excellent point, and I feel this compulsion to jump-in and amplify the point.
  6. Ask confirming questions to understand better the core issue or interest of the person communicating with you.
  7. Restate what you think the other person said and seek clarification.
  8. Never multi-task in a setting where people are communicating. A better rule: never multi-task!
  9. Change the medium. If a flip-chart or whiteboard is present, draw or describe what you perceive the other person is saying. I love introducing a visual component. I used this with a brilliant CEO who was much more comfortable illustrating his points than articulating them.

One I left off the list probably because of my own bias is, taking notes. I find that I cannot focus on the listener and drive the slow-process of translating their message into something coherent. It’s multi-tasking, and as indicated, multi-tasking is a lousy plan. However, once a conversation has concluded with clarity, I always jot down the key takeaways and provide a copy to my counterpart as a final quality check for what I heard and what we agreed.

Committing to listening is an attitude and “fierce attention,” as described by Tom Peters, is a commitment to excellence. Stop talking, purge the personal pronoun, “I” from any of your utterances, and focus on what your counterpart is trying to achieve. The listening muscle might be the most important one of all for you to exercise daily.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.