What stops us from listening – to everyone, all the time?

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In the middle of a conversation, my team member said with frustration, “Padma, will you please allow me to complete. Please listen to me.” I said, “Go ahead”. While I thought, “why are you getting into unnecessary details, just come to the point.” I have also been at the receiving end. I remember working with a CEO who would interrupt people very often. Or worse, would start looking at his phone, as the poor employee struggled to catch his attention.

Needless to say, employees have the responsibility to be precise and crisp in their communication, especially while interacting with their managers and senior leaders.

But, what about leaders? Don’t they also have some responsibility to develop patience and truly listen with an open mind? We all agree that we need to listen, there is rarely a disagreement on this count. We love to interact and work with managers, customers, doctors, lawyers who listen to us.

But we don’t listen– not always and more importantly not everyone. We are good listeners, when we want to and when we feel there is a need. But consciously or unconsciously, we often forget to use this skill. Following are few reasons I can think of, from my personal experience when I turned out to be a poor listener:

  • Hierarchy – Can you think of a time when you are interacting with a board member or CEO of your company and you didn’t listen? And of times when you have not paid full attention to a junior employee or your team member. Reasons can be many, but it’s important to accept the reality – hierarchy brings bias into the listening process – at least sometimes.
  • Not a priority – There are only 24 hours in a day and we all want to get so much done. So we prioritize! A recent experience taught me that prioritization can play havoc. Last month I took 3 weeks medical leave and stayed at home. While interacting with my mother in those 3 weeks, I realized that I was truly listening to her after months. I was so busy in past few months that a lot of times, I was not listening to listening to her. I had more important things going on in my mind! And I was worried about the ever increasing ‘to-do list’.
  • Bias arising from previous experience – I saw a colleague walking towards my office and groaned silently, “God! My next one hour is gone!” In past few interactions, the conversation simply went on and on. My mind quickly tried to think of ways to get rid of him. Surprisingly on that day, he spent just 10 minutes. He briefly shared his ideas, sought my inputs, took notes and left.
  • Inability to hold back while listening to different views – We all say that we welcome different views. But it’s hard to hold back and listen attentively to a different perspective, especially when we are convinced about our point of view. It demands immense self-control and open-mindedness to truly listen to opposing views – without interrupting and without defending our views.

It requires tremendous effort and awareness to be a good listener all the time and with everyone. The first step towards this is to become aware of the biases that may plague us. And try to overcome them as much as we can, as often as we can.

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