Listening with the Ear in the Chest By Graham Williams

m_graham williams

Listening but not hearing

Perhaps, over the years since Socrates developed dialogue, Madame Rambouillet organized conversation in salons, and the heigh day of Samuel (Doctor) Johnson, the art of conversation and listening has declined. Perhaps this current age of electronic interactions will see further decline. And perhaps this is happening when better communication is most needed – not least of all in the business world. Let’s take a look at this vital leadership skill.

In my work with organizations, I’m often called upon to apply story-listening in many areas – including anecdote circle research, carrying out crucial conversations, eliciting marketing metaphors, harnessing diversity, improving customer service responsiveness…. At the leadership level, Gareth Morgan relates listening to the shaping of culture and the management of meaning: “He or she spends time listening, summarizing, integrating, and guiding what is being said……the leader in effect wields a form of symbolic power that exerts a decisive influence on how people perceive their realities and hence the way they act”. 1

The branches of your intelligence grow new leaves in the wind of listening - Rumi Click To Tweet

Without mindful, tuned-in listening, we fail to gather needed information, knowledge and wisdom. We don’t detect the timely warning, or the well-earned encouragement, we miss the feelings and intent of the other, and don’t convey that we respect and care for them and their opinions …

m_listeningListening blockages

Many of us encounter blockages to attentive listening. It seems that our attention spans and retention-spans are reducing. Under the pressures of time, deadlines, and an overwhelm of messages, we overlook listening opportunities. We may lack the necessary discipline and lapse into pretend listening, selective listening, glassy-eyed (bored) listening, red flag listening (where a word or phrase will trigger an emotion and skew our understanding), or opportunistic listening (waiting for the right moment to jump in with our own viewpoints).

Sometimes, if we are too intent on listening for content, intent, personality, learning style, conflict responses, strengths, thinking styles, intelligences, facts – we may in fact hear only that part of what is being said that we are on the lookout to hear.

These listening filters can become an occupational hazard for managers, coaches, counselors, negotiators, sales persons …. Our focus on being too analytical, becomes our enemy. Too much of what we really need to hear is filtered out by our own intellect.

A cluttered mind

Another blockage is when we enter into a listening situation not fully prepared to listen attentively, with a mind that’s too cluttered to listen. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains, and offers a good solution: “When we have something on our minds that is important – especially a To Do item – we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop, a network of brain regions that ties together the frontal cortex just behind your eyeballs and the hippocampus in the center of your brain … The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them. Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else”.2

m_man and womanAnd if we’re not aware of these blockages, rest assured, the other person is! Part of being an attentive listener is to be aware of both our own listening strengths and ‘deficits’ and judge these accurately.

When another feels unheard and offers us that feedback, it’s time to take stock. St Francis of Assisi wisely counseled about seeking to understand before seeking to be understood.

The Magic of listening

It is estimated that the unconscious mind accounts for 95% of all cognition, and Neuro-linguistic practitioners point out that what we hear and say is influenced 55% by outward appearances and body language, 38% by voice quality and only 7% by the actual words used. A great deal of what we hear takes place at the unconscious level: When listening to a story, not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but also parts that we use when experiencing the events of the story. We don’t distinguish between imagination and reality. The sensory cortex is aroused when a metaphor is heard. The brains of storyteller and listener are synchronized during the story: ‘mirror’ neurons play a role in building rapport and empathy. Thus, just simply listening is powerful in its own right.

Improving our listening skills

So, what can we do to consciously improve our listening abilities? As a Lifeline telephone counselor, I learned that listening carefully and attentively aids us in asking those questions that will help the speaker become more aware of and gain insight into their own thinking and feelings, blind spots, self-defeating attitudes and limiting beliefs that hold them back, and put them into crisis mode. This unconscious, patterned thinking tends to pop out during conversation. (“I’m not good at …”, “I go blank when asked …”,“I’m not a nice person ..”, “If I don’t .. then .. “).

When people talk listen completely. Most people never listen - Ernest Hemingway Click To Tweetm_talking

At the same time, we need to be aware that adopting this (advisory) role can subtly change the dynamic between speaker and listener. The listener has assumed a parent role.3

It’s also possible that the assumption of such a role can act as a mask, to avoid equal sharing and an unwillingness to show vulnerability, and fudge the purity of our listening.

I try to remember that I am listening to only one story at a time. Every person consists of many facets, many stories. There are no single-story people. And every story invites us into a contained world with the other. As Denning puts it, when we listen we: ”…help invent this virtual world, along with the story line provided by the narrator. Listening to a story is thus not simply an issue of registering the imprint of the storyteller’s words. The storyteller’s words are the stimulus for the creation of this virtual world, but it is the readers whose participation conjures it up…

m_grannyI find the practice of participating in storytelling natural, enjoyable and relaxing. Most important, it is energizing. Filling in the gaps in a story generates, rather than depletes, energy. I have more energy at the end than when I begin”.

Author Nancy Kline advocates deliberate, attentive listening without interruption at any time, to convey respect and appreciation for the other, but mainly to refrain from guiding them to a solution–and effectively undermining their ability to think and resolve things for themselves. I sometimes use her approach in workshops and find a widespread recognition of the absence of deep listening competence, a new appreciation of the value of silence and pause, and a new grasp of the importance of listening.

Our job is not to see through one another, but to see one another through. Click To Tweet

After a true listening encounter, the companion leadership skill of reflection kicks in – the considered, focused attention to what was said during the encounter.

Concluding thoughts

We could delve much further into deep-seated higher/lower, left/right brain conditioning and entrenched personal survival needs, which determine what we hear, and how we interpret that. Suffice to say that listening is a complex – not simple activity. And the single most important Emotional Intelligence skill.

Ultimately it comes right down to respect and appreciation of the other person. An Amish proverb: “Our job is not to see through one another, but to see one another through”.

So Rumi talked of ‘listening with the ear in the chest’ and Paul Tillich, the theologian, said that the first duty of love is to listen.

m_earsGE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has said that “humble listening” is among the top four characteristics in leaders.

In every office you hear the threads
of love and joy and fear and guilt,
the cries for celebration and reassurance,
and somehow you know that connecting those threads
is what you’re supposed to do
and business takes care of itself 

The art and skill of listening is a strategic tool. One that we can use to great effect.

The art and skill of listening is a strategic tool Click To Tweet

Management guru Tom Peters is on record as saying, “The single most significant strategic strength that an organization can have … is a commitment to strategic listening”.8 Echoed by Bernie Ferrari (author of Power Listening): “Listening is the most critical business skill of all. The difference between great and mediocre business leaders is the ability to listen”.

We all want great experiences and one of these is having strong social connections.
That’s because to the human brain, social pain – through the breaking of a bond, or a rejection – is as real as physical pain. And because we need and enjoy true bonding so much!

As a leader, ask yourself:

    · Do I clear my mind of other distractions before every listening encounter?
    · Have I mastered the art and skill of attentive listening, focused on the other person and what they are sharing?
    · After each listening engagement, do I take the time to mull over and appreciate what I’ve heard?

Listening creates bonds.

I recall a friend who, when I checked out if I had told her a particular story, responded, “Maybe, but tell me again. I might hear something I didn’t hear before”.

Graham Williams is a certified management consultant, thought leader, business narrative practitioner and author based in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at

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