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  • Writer's pictureXecutive Metrix

Speaking and Listening With Intent

Updated: May 11, 2023

The ability to communicate something more than just the simplest of concepts is a distinguishing attribute that elevates humans above all other creatures. Despite its lofty position, it is also an attribute that humans do not exercise very well. Modern history is littered with dire results from people’s failures to communicate. Perhaps this poor performance is what gave rise to Alexander Pope’s famous quote “to err is human...”

Vision may be the most important of the senses from a pure survival perspective, but it is hearing and its corollary, speaking, that are most important from a perspective of what makes, and keeps, us human. The spoken word communicates more knowledge, of every conceivable type, from person to person than does the written word; and it is just as true today as in ancient times. Spoken language, of course, preceded written language and that may explain why it is the preferred means of communication the world over.

Hearing is Science; Listening is Art

While it is absolutely true that we hear physical sounds with the hammer, anvil and stirrups of our ears, it is equally true that we interpret the meaning of the words we hear based on our highly individualized, cognitive interpretations of it. Each of us then has a unique, slightly different interpretation of reality. “Reality” for each of us is what we perceive it to be; there is no absolute reality other than in the physical world and even then, many people frequently disagree. Our reality is fluid. It changes with our interpretations.

The Traveler of the Tourist?

It’s an old saw that says the tourist sees what he came to see while the traveler sees what is there. Which is to say that we often interpret things in light of what we want the outcome to be, not what it is. This same dichotomy exists in the way we interpret what others communicate to us.

Logically speaking, two individuals with reasonable intelligence and the same set of facts should come to the same conclusion. Despite this logic, the fact remains that two people will often disagree vehemently even after they communicate their positions.

The reason for this is that people often rely on information they presume to be factual or they rely on facts that may either be irrelevant, withheld from, or unknown to the other person.

Listen With Your Eyes

Knowing that we each have a slightly skewed perception of reality means we must also recognize that the meaning of whatever we try to communicate will also likewise be skewed, both by speaker and listener. This is the ordinary outcome unless we take positive action to be the traveler instead of the tourist.

The key to understanding what someone is trying to communicate lies in your ability to engage more than just your hearing. People are emotional beings, and emotions affect the clarity of the message delivered and received. When we cannot or do not ascertain the correct emotional undertones or subtleties, we will fail to succeed in understanding what the speaker intended.

Spoken language conveys much more than just the sound vibrations that stimulate your ears. It also includes an infinite amount of emotional undertones as well as the subtleties and nuances present in the words chosen. Because spoken language can be highly charged with emotion, it is absolutely necessary that we are aware of the body language of the speaker and the listener. We may hear with our ears, but we must learn to listen with our eyes if we are to capture the emotional inputs.

Good Listeners Makes Good Leaders

Objective, unbiased communication is essential for effectively and efficiently conducting the business of business (as well as the business of ordinary living). In fact, one of the greatest skills a leader can have is the ability to truly listen to others and, in so doing, he gains the real understanding of their messages, complete with nuances of fear, frustration, happiness, jealousy, satisfaction, etc. Being a truly good listener adds tremendously to a leader’s rapport with their people and greatly improves their ability to build significant levels of trust with the organization.

Peel the Onion with Ears and Eyes

Because of all of the complexities involved in accurately understanding spoken language, it might be helpful to think of a conversation as being like an onion. Each layer we pass beyond gets us closer to the center, or in the case of a conversation, to the real meaning behind the words. It is a generally accepted practice in Continuous Improvement that to truly understand what prevents a desired result from happening one must ask questions and probe to understand the real meaning, sometimes delving as deep as five layers!

The surest way to get to the inner truth in any conversation is to use your eyes at least as much as you use your ears.

“To err is human, to persist in error is diabolical”

—Georges Canguilhem

Barriers to Effective Listening

When we fail to be an active listener, it is usually for no real substantive reason. We let ourselves be distracted, or we don’t focus sufficiently on the real message, or worst of all, we are preoccupied with defending our own opinion or position. Fortunately, all of these barriers can be overcome simply by exerting greater effort. There is but one way to become a great listener: practice what it takes to achieve active listening.

“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in.”

—Peter Senge

Active Listening

When we put together everything we have discussed to this point, we have the ingredients for active listening. An active listener is someone who listens to understand; someone who puts aside their own position or opinion temporarily in order to be able to focus exclusively on understanding the message the speaker is sending. An active listener hears the words and uses their cognitive abilities to understand their meaning, both on the surface and the underlying subtleties. When he listens with their eyes, the active listener detects the emotional cues that underlie the speaker’s words. The active listener is also skilled at asking questions that help peel back the onion when necessary.

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