I attended a leadership seminar recently that focused on the topic of language and how the way we listen and speak impacts our power, freedom and effectiveness. What particularly struck me was the statement, “Fundamentally, human beings don’t listen.” My first reaction was, “Of course, we do.” But as the presenter went on I began to see her point.
When someone else is talking to you what you hear is being filtered through your brain. And while that person is speaking, you are probably having an internal dialogue in your head, judging and evaluating what you are hearing and weighing it against your own opinions. In essence, you are not really present as the person is speaking because of the conversation going on in your head.
That conversation might sound something like this: “I can’t believe he is making that comment about productivity. Doesn’t he know how hard our team is working? I’d like to see him accomplish what we have with the number of people we have left in this department. Maybe I should have anticipated his reaction. After all, when I passed him in the hall last week he made that comment about Frank’s lateness with the report. Maybe he thinks I should have been responsible for that report. Perhaps I should have been. Why didn’t I speak up about it weeks ago?”
When your internal filter is running, you can’t really listen to what is being said. Instead you tune things out or become distracted by what you think you heard. One seminar participant noted that she spends about half her day on conference calls. Many of those calls seem to have no relevance to her work (and I suspect that many other people who are on the call feel the same way). So perhaps 1/10 of the time she’s paying attention and the rest of the time she’s doing work, answering email or stewing about the general waste of her time. Sound familiar?
But as the seminar speaker pointed out, in situations like this you have an alternative. First of all, if you look at the things you tend to filter out you will find a pattern. “The things you have no ability to listen to are repetitive,” she said. People have the ability, she added, to change how they listen and create a new filter.
She suggested to the woman burdened by all these conference calls to ask the planner of the next one if she is truly needed on this call. If the answer is yes, then she could ask what her role is on this call. By trying to clarify the purpose of the meeting and her presence in it she might find out that there is a value for her or she might be told that she isn’t really needed and doesn’t have to participate.
There’s a huge amount of time that is wasted in the workplace by people tuning out at meetings or creating their own perceptions of what they think is going on and then acting on those assumptions. Imagine how much happier and productive people would be if they could only listen effectively and speak up and clarify situations that are bothering them. And, of course, we could all benefit from fewer meetings.