“What did he call it again?  It was an interesting word,” remarked the promoter.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t listening. He was talking on and on,” responded the speaker.

That was a snippet of the conversation I heard recently while attending a leadership conference. The main speaker was mingling with the crowd and really leaving a good impression on the attendees. His eyes were focused on each speaker. He nodded and laughed at seemingly all of the right moments.

Yet, when questioned, he couldn’t recall the conversations because, by his own admission, he really wasn’t listening.

I may not be a great talker or conversationalist, but I love to listen. I especially love personal stories. If you ever meet with me, we will likely turn a 30-minute chat over coffee into 90 minutes easily. And likely, you’ll do most of the talking.

On my 10th wedding anniversary, some friends decided to take my wife and I out to dinner with him and his wife. We went to a local restaurant and spent 45 minutes at the bar chatting before taking a seat at our table. Dinner lasted about 2 hours from then. It was just us four sharing stories and dreams.

As we drove home, my wife asked me, “Did you even have fun?”

I said, “Yes, I had a great time. Why?”

“You hardly said a word,” she noted.

“I was listening,” I responded.

Good Listening

You see, for me, listening means I talk less than the other person. I wait patiently for a break in the conversation and then interject my ideas. I figure if someone is willing to give up their time to share a story with me, it must be important to them. Interrupting, cutting them off, or finishing their story for them just to get my ideas out is belittling.

My wife believes a good listener retells some of the other person’s story while adding in a similar story of her own.  This shows that she heard and understands their feelings because she’s been there.

Which Way is Correct?

In the art of effective leadership, both are correct, and neither is correct. Both are correct because each of us is being authentic in how we listen. Neither would be correct if we tried each others’ technique.

If I tried to interject when I thought it was appropriate to show my feelings and understanding, I’d come across as fake. If my wife tried to be silent through the entire story, she’d probably burst. By me concentrating on her style and her focused on using mine, neither of us would be truly listening. We’d be too busy thinking about the technique.

Although the speaker I overheard was putting on a very good and well-rehearsed image of someone listening, he really wasn’t a good listener.  He was much more focused on the impression he left with his audience than he was about what others were really saying.

Certainly we all can enhance our ability to listen through practicing certain techniques.  Just don’t be fooled by those who are skilled purely in the techniques and don’t be too focused on listening technique yourself.

If you are concentrating on your posture, eye contact, facial expression or how you’re going to reiterate what the other person said, you’re not focused on what the other person is saying.

My number one advice to those who want to improve their listening is to start by caring enough about the other person to close your mouth, open your mind, and listen.

How Are You Listening?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Chris Elliot
Chris is a practicing Servant Leader with more than 20 years experience helping organizations implement change. In his new book Thought Shredder, he outlines the process that helped him become an authentic leader.