I've written only a few posts on the topic of listening, and it turns out the last one I wrote was back in June of 2008, almost 4 years ago, when I wrote a post titled Try Listening For A Change. I wrote a post in 2007 titled Learn To Shut Up and one in 2005 titled Are You Listening To Your Intuition.

by Dheepak Ra via Flickr

It's amazing how long it's been since I've touched upon this subject, especially since it seems to come up more often than not. As an example I'd like to tell this brief tale about me, my mother, and a place where she likes to go to get submarine sandwiches.

She told me a couple of weeks ago when I visited her and went in to get a sub for her that the people behind the counter never listen to her when she tells them how she wants her sub. It's a very simple order every time: a large ham on wheat with only mayonnaise, and don't cut it.

Sounds simple, right? I thought so when I went in to get her a sub. I was asked what I wanted, and I said exactly what I printed above. The first question was "did you say wheat?" The next question was "do you want anything else on it?" The question after that was "what about cheese or olives?" The final thing was my saying "are you cutting that", to which she said "yes, I'm cutting it in half", which led me to say "I'm sorry, but now you have to make me an entirely new sub because I asked you not to cut it because it's for my mother and she doesn't want it cut."

Mom was right; these people weren't listening to her, and they didn't listen to me. Unfortunately it points out what happens every day in some business, either between peers or with customers. Everyone is so ready to just respond to a question that they're not taking the time to listen to what the person is saying to them. This makes people mad, and makes the person who wasn't listening feel upset because they've been caught assuming and not paying attention.

There's two kinds of "not listening". One is when you don't understand what someone else is saying and thus you can't listen. This happens often during training sessions because no amount of listening is going to help anyone learn something if they're already confused. The other is when you think you know it all and thus are rehearsing what it is you want to say before the other person has even finished explaining everything.

Truthfully, we all do both, but I've spent a lot of time working more on the second than the first. That's because I'm one of the few people I know where, if I don't understand someone, I'll immediately start asking questions so I don't fall behind, or will eventually stop someone and tell them I'm not processing the information and I don't need to.

I work more on the second one because I try to anticipate what people are saying as much as the next person, but after all these years I've also learned that I don't have to practice what I need to say once someone is finished before hearing it all. I will take my pauses, and I will sometimes repeat what I think I've heard if I need to do that. I've learned that I have the confidence in myself to not have to give a quick response to any queries that come my way. I'm not afraid of the silence of a moment while I collect my thoughts; that's a skill that takes practice, and I've been working on it for decades. I still haven't perfected it, but I'm pretty good.

We're not a good society for listening, and we have to change that. If you want to be an effective leader, it's something you need to acknowledge, then work on. Come on, join me on this quest; trust me, it'll be to your benefit.