January 8, 2015
Why You Should Resolve To Become A Better Listener

I resolve to listen more in 2015. It is a simple resolution, one I could probably make every year. Experience has taught me that I have rarely, if ever, learned anything while I was speaking. I have learned much while silent.

Listening is more than the time that has to pass while I am waiting to talk. Listening requires direct human engagement – eye contact is a good place to start. It requires me to focus first on the words, then on the body language, then on the tone of voice of the person who is speaking.

Listening is an active process and requires me to intellectually engage with another human being. It is, in many respects, a lost art in American public life. Flip on the cable news and you witness people speaking past each other, furiously stomping on the words of colleagues, guests and even the hosts who invited them to appear on screen.

Sometimes it seems that nobody is listening to anyone. But a closer look reveals that is not the case.

I remember sitting in a briefing room while serving in the U.S. Army as staff officers made presentations on an ongoing operation to the general in command. The general sat upright, but comfortably, and nodded almost imperceptibly from time to time. He asked a question every so often, but offered no opinions. He took it all in – clearly listening throughout.

Later, when orders came out based on the briefings, it was clear that he had paid close attention and shaped his instructions based on what he had heard. It was a simple example, but one I noted at the time – and remember still today.

Look around: You can note leaders who listen by the simple fact that they change their opinion based on what their people tell them. That may sound obvious, but sadly I have seen many in power who do not shift their views based on what they hear. They make me nervous.

I don’t think I’m a bad listener, necessarily. But I can step up my game in the vital area, especially when it comes to the daily interactions I have away from the office.

What words are people using to describe events? How are people describing their lives, their jobs and their plans for the future? Clients who count on my advice need me to know what is happening in the hearts and minds of Americans.

People like to talk and they are in constant search for a willing audience. By cultivating the mien of the listener, you attract people who have vital information, valuable experience and the inside scoop. Yes, you have to endure some pointless conversation from time to time, but you can always disengage. A commitment to listen does not translate to a self-sentence to the prison of inanity.

Listening has another powerful benefit – it gives you a competitive edge. You can see this in action whether you are the CEO or the junior accountant. The quiet person who is clearly listening ultimately has a moment to speak. And when that moment comes, other people pay attention to what she or he says. What you say next is more powerful and persuasive precisely because it has come from someone who did not demand the right to speak or drown out the voices of colleagues.

In a sense, listening increases influence, and that may be the best reason to stick to my “new ears” resolution.

Pete Janhunen
Pete Janhunen is a principal at 50PointOne. A West Point graduate and former Army officer, he has spent more than 17 years leading successful communications efforts for high-profile organizations. Connect with him on Twitter @50PointOne.

Other Articles by Pete Janhunen:

Talk To The Troops: Why Communication Is Key To Effective Leadership

3 Tips For Bouncing Back From A Mistake

How Fear Of Failure Crippled A Civil War General