When in doubt, listen

Almost every workplace-related challenge boils down to poor leadership. 

Almost every leadership challenge can be traced to poor communication. 

Almost every communication problem boils down to one thing, poor listening. I believe that is the root of all evil. At least when it comes to building and maintaining human relations. I recall a great story from Stephen Covey’s seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He won’t listen to me at all.”

“Let me restate what you just said,” I replied. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”

“That’s right,” he replied.

“Let me try again,” I said. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”

“That’s what I said,” he impatiently replied.

“I thought that to understand another person, you needed to listen to him,” I suggested.

“Oh!” he said. There was a long pause. “Oh!” he said again, as the light began to dawn. “Oh, yeah! But I do understand him. I know what he is going through. I went through the same thing myself. I guess what I don’t understand is why he won’t listen to me.”

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

I love that story for two reasons: 

1. It establishes that most people are convinced that they understand others when all they’ve been trying is to be understood. And that is the fundamental reason why resistance between two people can escalate into an all-out war (or cold war, like the one I had with my dad decades back).

2. We can’t expect too much from our relationships unless we rewire ourselves to listen. That takes a lot of self-discipline as most of us have been trained since childhood to speak, write, and read but not listen. And whatever we know about listening is mostly superficial, a.k.a., active listening. 

Of course, one can’t transition from being a poor listener to a deep listener overnight. It takes a lot of time, patience, and humility to become good at it. I, for sure, know that it takes professional coaches (like yours truly) years to master listening. And we still keep working on it. Why? We’re human beings, after all. 

One of the best strategies I’ve found to practice a lot of listening is making that as my default approach to communication. That could mean asking people, “what’s on your mind?” and follow up with questions that express genuine interest and desire to know the other person or the challenges they face. It helps even when the other person is rude, arrogant, and doesn’t give a damn about what you think or say, which works in your favor because you aren’t trying to say anything at all. You want to listen to what they have to say. 

It makes a lot of difference, although it’s a hard thing to master. 

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