Black Oak Coaching

Living with Change & Personal Growth Coaching

On Hearing and Listening

The importance of listening, truly listening.
Q: “Did you hear me?” 
A: “Yeah, I heard you… “
Q: “Are you listening to me?”
A: “ … (loud, audible, sarcastic sigh) yes“

That reminds me of many conversations that I had as a child, with my parents. You can probably guess who was asking the questions and who was providing the answers.

So, what is the difference between listening and hearing? Are they synonomous? Can they be used interchangeably?
 Should they? I think all too often in our daily lives we get caught up in the task of hearing when we should be listening, especially at the office. Has it ever happened to you where you are sitting in a meeting and someone is talking about the latest project, goals or whatever, and you are looking at them, giving great non-verbal feedback, acknowledging them as you should be, but in your head is an ongoing whirlwind of responses or statements that you need to make? Or what if you are next on the agenda and you’re rehearsing your delivery, instead of listening to the current one? 

Too often we are merely hearing others, all the while concerning ourselves with what we have to say - because what we have to say is important, right?

Hearing acknowledges the person communicating, while listening acknowledges AND understands the person communicating.
 We are all human - we all have a need to be acknowledged and heard, we all want that feeling and reinforcement (some more than others) that the things we say and communicate are valuable. All too often, we are so busy worrying about being heard, that we are not hearing (acknowledging) and listening (understanding) those around us.

If you and I are in a conversation, we BOTH have that need. Here’s an example and a true story. A few years back, I worked with Amy Q. (not her real name, of course) at a fortune 50 company in Atlanta. She was young, creative and sharp as a tack… However she had one habit that really drove me crazy. Anytime you spoke with her, she would stop, think, and slowly respond with her answer. Sometimes the pauses were seemingly forever and it felt so awkward and very disjointed. There were times that I wanted to shout, “What are you waiting for?”…
 Then finally one day after many of these conversations (I can be thick-headed sometimes), I finally realized what she was doing. And honestly, it changed me. Holy Crap! She was not only hearing me, but she was actually listening to me… and digesting what I was saying. She was spending the time understanding my words, my non-verbal cues, and my nuances of communication, instead of spending that time anticipating and calculating her responses! She instantly became one of my heroes. I’ve fondly remembered this eye-opening exchange many times since. But old habits, die hard and even after this amazing learning experience, I still find it difficult to do. I still find myself thinking about what I’m going to say or how I'm going to say it, instead of hearing and listening to the other person. But hopefully admitting the problem is a first step. (Amy, if you are out there, THANK YOU!)

So, how do we get better at listening?

I’m fairly certain, like in most things, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ answer, and frankly there shouldn’t be, because if you think about it, changing how we function as human beings isn’t easy and we’re all the same, but different, so our solutions probably are too. There are, however, things that we can do and think about that can help us in our ability to listen, as well as in many other aspects of our day-to-day life. Here is a very short list of some.
Practice being in the moment - easy to say and easy to do the first few times - but practice making it a habit. Stop worrying about ‘what’s next’
 or ‘how do I respond that makes me seem knowledgeable?’ or worse yet, ‘how do I impress this person or group?’. Life is short, be in the moment.
Think about the person that is speaking/communicating to you - understand that they too, have a need to be heard and to be understood. If you have that need, they do too. We all do.
Acknowledge the other person’s need to be heard - understanding this is huge, but also can be done in non-verbal ways, pay attention. Treat others as you want to be treated - give them the courtesy of not only hearing, but of listening and understanding, in hopes that they will do the same for you.
 I’m positive there are plenty of others if you think about it. 

Obviously this doesn’t guarantee that you won’t catch yourself resorting to old habits once in a while, but maybe, just maybe, admitting the problem and thinking about ways to correct it, are two great steps in the right direction.