a conversation about listening vitally with jane hewson
JH: Charles Ives said Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he didn’t have to go to Boston to hear the symphony.
KT: the listening room by MAT Studio and Elastik
CG: Jane, a good entry point into our conversation about listening.
What’s the real art of listening and why do we need to be practicing it right now?
JH: Listening is about being still. And patient. And generous. It’s a difficult trifecta to achieve.
Think about the last time almost anyone you know gave their absolute attention to you or someone who was talking to them.
You have to quiet your mind entirely, and be willing to be influenced by someone else’s thinking and thoughts.
You need to put aside any desire to rebut or argue a point, and be completely open and non-judgmental. Very hard to do.
CG: You say most people don’t listen because they don’t know how to.
JH: As individuals, we rarely discuss how to listen, nor learn how to listen. Unless you’re a musician, or a journalist – and I’m not sure even journalists learn how to listen any more.
As for corporations, there’s fast-growing awareness that their operating paradigms don’t foster active listening. Many now seek out teachers to help them become more proficient at it and create working environments that foster and reward it. It’s part of what I’m engaged in at The Creating WE Institute, where we talk about vital conversations. So many decisions are made through conversation. Each on of them should be considered vital, because each one provides an opportunity to create positive, selfless outcomes.
We work with corporate clients and are making remarkable progress moving their cultures out of an entrenched self-focus.
CG: What happens when we listen vitally?
JH: In the purest sense, when we really listen, we’re re-created and grow by taking in something new. When we become receivers of ideas – like great radio receivers – and attend to the thoughts and views of others without transmitting our own. So listening becomes, can become an extraordinarily creative process.
Think about a river at its source. Along the way thousands of brooks and streams and other bodies of water join it, all adding to the flow and the whole. So by the time the river reaches its mouth it has swelled with all these contributions. Think of your mind and heart growing in this same expansive way as your life progresses, as it freely receives a wealth of other contributions.
We have an opportunity to live and work this way; but we can’t do it without making listening vitally a priority.
CG: How has technology affected our ability to listen?
JH: The act of listening itself is a factor of your age and exposure to technology. Those who grew up with computers often thrive on mental multi-tasking; listening to music for example while chatting online while talking on a cell phone while watching a sporting event on TV. They listen differently – and more chaotically – than their parents, than someone like me.
Today, the art of listening has been overwhelmed by the ceaseless input of ‘noise’ in our daily lives; which gives rise to our need to be heard clearly…a need that rarely gets met. There’s so much coming in that isn’t filtered, can’t easily be filtered, so you wind up drowning in this unfiltered kind of listening.
There is an antidote: tuning in to the healthy, the wanted and the needed.
CG: There are many different kinds of noise, static, interference, from the ambient to the intentional.
JH: Yes. Think about the noise that comes just from man-made things that run on gas, electricity etc., from cars, refrigerators and air conditioning to stereos, televisions, printers and phones. Which has nothing to do with all the marketing noise that surrounds and bombards us, a whole other layer.
When was the last time you sat in a place where there was absolutely no man-made sound? Where it was completely quiet. Even in the wilds of Vermont, there’s interference. But when the power goes out there, I can sit in the kitchen next to the wood stove at night with a candle and hear a lone drop of water outside. I can hear the creak and groan of the old sugar maple in a slight wind. And listen to the hisses in the fireplace. There’s no extraneous input to contend with.
All this pure expression is always there for us to listen to. But we have to work harder these days to be in these moments.
CG: How can a company or marketer learn to listen well or better?
JH: The biggest risk for marketers is selective listening. Listening only for what supports your theory or strategy. Yet you can’t listen selectively and effectively at the same time. It may solve your short-term issue, in meeting an immediate agenda or deadline, but it’ll come back to haunt you.
CG: It seems we’re at a point where companies simply can’t afford to not listen closely, completely, sincerely.
JH: Yes, because there’s a minor form of social revolt afoot now, a dearth of trust in providers among consumers. Partly because consumers feel the scale of large companies doesn’t allow for any personal dialogue about our thoughts and feelings. Or because marketers, providers are just pretending to listen and care; which we see right through.
CG: What’s the litmus test of how well one is listening?
JH: A great listener cares more about the messages being communicated to them, than in their reply to those messages. Another test is if you’re bored, which shows you’re not engaged; that you’re not being generous in your listening. Because you have to actively care about what someone is saying; be genuinely interested.
A great listener expresses their listening with their whole body: their eyes are engaged, their posture is attentive and directed toward the speaker; their expression is naturally welcoming and supportive.
CG: But isn’t selective listening massively institutionalized? What will it take to move this mountain?
JH: It’s no easy feat. Most companies need to be up against a wall to change their ways. And they also need to have someone extraordinary or courageous enough in a leadership position to say no one’s really listening here. We don’t even know what we’re supposed to be listening to. I believe the transformation will happen first with smaller businesses.
And, many big institutions may be dismantled or crumble in part because the prevailing corporate paradigm hasn’t fostered a purity in listening. In fact, it has disabled companies’ ability to listen well.
The pressure to meet a prescribed agenda has generally overridden any reason to listen. Jack Welch in a recent Financial Times interview basically admitted that his own theory of placing shareholder value and profits at the top of the priority list was destructive. He said business leaders wound up sacrificing listening to and caring for their employees and customers, and sacrificing the quality of the products or services they were providing, because those things didn’t necessarily lead to accelerated shareholder profits.
CG: What kinds of great listeners are out there in our world that you look to?
JH: Musicians, poets, great salespeople; individuals of deep faith; teachers who work with children with physical and emotional disabilities. All people who have open minds and hearts; who thrive on creativity; who listen to far more than just words.
CG: And why do you feel face-to-face communicating is still so essential? In this day and age of distant and disembodied communicating.
JH: Good face-to-face interaction means being fully present. If we ever lost the ability to have generative conversation around a dinner table, that would be a sad day for humankind.
While hearing comes naturally, listening and interacting well with others has to be learned. It’s a skill. In my coaching work, I videotape people in small group settings making a presentation. When I play the tape back immediately afterward, most are shocked by what they see: how powerful their facial expressions are, how much others read into their tone of voice and body language. Because often what someone says doesn’t match how they say it, or how they appear when they say it. Mixed messages.
CG: Does something like Twittering close off our opportunity to listen?
JH: Twittering is a new phenomenon, one that’s self-facing, one-directional: it’s about blasting out your information. You don’t need to attend to the listener(s) at all. And if you’re only transmitting, you’re unable to listen.
CG: You did a recent radio program on face-to-face communicating for Lori Sackler’s show ‘The M Word: Money & Family’ that was very thoughtful. If anyone would like to hear it, the link is here.
What’s the most essential question we should be asking ourselves around this big issue of listening? As individuals, as companies, as a society.
JH: We have to ask how sincerely interested and capable we are of quieting our own minds, and receiving openly and deeply.
It’s difficult, because it comes back to the fact most of us are underserved in being listened to.
We have an incredible opportunity and ability to get to this important place. To practice the real art of listening, and as a result positively and powerfully affect our personal and business communities.
CG: Jane, all vital things to ponder and pursue. Thank you for our conversation.
Colin Goedecke is a senior marketing writer, messaging strategist and interviewer, with a 23-year history helping leading and emerging companies worldwide platform and tell their stories. The Real Art of Listening is the 16th in a series of thought pieces, to help us think, act and communicate in wiser ways. Others can be found at www.tenowls.blogspot.com
Jane Hewson is principal of Beresford Partners, business development consultants, and a founding member of The Creating WE Institute focused on new forms and levels of thought leadership. Her career spans over 30 years counseling leading firms on marketing and communicating.
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