Listening With Your Ears

“You can listen as well as you hear”

But we usually don’t. I believe that was the point of the lyric from the 1989 (US Release) song, “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics. One of the verses of that song goes like this:

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thoughts
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talkin’ in defense

Doesn’t that sound like too many of our relationships? Whether in families or company meetings, there is a lot of talking that goes on. But, much of it misses actual communication or connection either because people are talking at the same time or because they are speaking “different languages” or they are hearing but not listening. The chorus to the song above says,

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear ,,,

And you can, but there is a difference between listening and hearing.

Hearing – is the physical response of the body (your ears) to sound. Your ear hears the sounds whether you listen to them or not. Hearing may be completely active (as when one is attending a concert) or passive (where the person may or may not focus on the sound as with background noise) or, in many other cases, a combination of both.

Listening – is a conscious recognition of the sounds you hear. It is active, and it is a skill. The intent of the listener is to understand what this being said, what was meant by it, and then to determine the appropriate response, if any.1

Similar Point Different Source

There is a salient piece of wisdom found in the pages of the Bible. In a general letter written to Christian believers, James (the half-brother of Jesus) wrote:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)

Wow, we almost always get that backwards. How many times are we quick to speak, slow to listen (if at all) and quick to become angry? In fact, quite often when we are “listening” we’re actually formulating what we want to say next. I would argue that that’s not listening at all.

If we take James’ advice and consider our natural proportions it would seem to suggest that we should listen at least twice as much as we talk. There is something even deeper in this piece of wisdom. There seems to be a parallel in James’ mind between the amount of listening and the amount of anger. When we talk first, chances are the other person is doing the same thing. It’s human nature. When two or more are talking at the same time we become frustrated because we can’t get our point across. This is the atmosphere in which anger grows. We do this for several reasons. Among those may be

  1. This person belongs to a particular group (management, labor, a political party, child, adult, either gender, etc.) and we believe we already know how “they” think.
  2. We know this person and maybe have had similar conversations in the past so we believe we already know what they’re thinking.
  3. It doesn’t matter to us what the other person is thinking, we have a point to make and we may even have the authority to press the point (we’re the boss)

It Takes More Than Just Ears

Hearing requires functional ears. Listening requires discipline (and can be done even without ears). The first discipline for good listening is to close our mouths. There are other disciplines critical to excellent listening related to hearing that we should work to develop. Among them are:

  1. Listen for the words. What words are being used? Do they fit the setting? Is this a formal conversation or a casual conversation? I like to say, “The beginning of Wisdom is the definition of terms.” What do the words mean? Are they emotionally charges words (“Never,” “Always”, “Why?”, etc.)?
  2. Listen for the tone of voice. This will tell a lot about the speaker’s frame of mind and emotional state. Is the tone relaxed or tense? What emotions can you detect in the speaker’s tone of voice? Happiness? Fear? Anger? Exasperation? This is always necessary but particularly so if the conversation is over the phone
  3. Listen for other sounds. Is the speaker laughing or sighing or crying or spitting with every word?
  4. Listen for the breathing pattern. Does it match the other things you’re hearing? A person may be straining to remain calm and seem so initially but an accelerated breathing pattern could be a signal that there is something else going on. Breathing patterns also let you know when it’s your turn to talk or when the other person has something to say.
  5. Listen for what is not being said. Sometimes this is more important than what is being said. For example, your 7 year old comes to tell you the story of what happened that caused their 5 year old sibling to cry. The story includes nothing about how your 7 year old came to know this information. You may suspect they were involved in some way. You may want to ask some relevant questions at this point (we’ll discuss this in another post)

The last line in the chorus to the Mike and the Mechanics song is:

It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

Let’s not be the people in the song. 

1 The Art of Asking, e-book, by Terry J. Fadem,  p. 149

Barriers to Good Listening

Before we get into specifics about Listening as a Full Contact Sport, it would be good to talk about some of the barriers to listening well. Knowing what gets in the way of listening will make the specific skills we talk about in later posts more clear. It will also help us develop the habit of good listening. What are some of the things that make good Listening a challenge?

The Speed of Speech vs. the Speed of Thought

You and I can think faster than someone else can speak. Most of us speak at the rate of about 125 words per minute. However, we have the mental capacity to understand someone speaking at 800 – 1,000 words per minute (if that were possible). Watch the video below and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t know how fast the guy in the commercial was talking, but I’m sure you were able to catch what he said. So you see that you can think much faster than anyone can talk.This difference between speaking speed and thought speed means that, when we listen to the average speaker, we’re using less than 20 percent of our mental capacity. We still have 80 percent with which to do something else . I like to call this “Bonus Brain Time.” Typically, our minds wander. Like the graphic for this post, the person we’re talking to may be talking about work, but we’re thinking about dinner! You can still hear what s/he is saying and kind of get it. But, “kind of” isn’t super-power listening. Not harnessing Bonus Brain Time to your listening advantage is one of the biggest culprits in poor listening.

On the other hand, developing the ability to focus that Bonus Brain Time on enhanced listening will rocket you toward super-power listener status.

Words Evaporate Quickly

Another challenge to good listening is that words are not concrete. Hearing is the most ephemeral of the senses. Once a word is spoken, there’s nothing to hang on to. The spoken word vanishes. I know you’ve had the same experience I have. You’re listening to someone (kind of). You’re mind wanders for what seems like just a second. You catch yourself and realize you just missed something they said that seems important. You try to remember what it was, but it’s gone. You can’t find it anywhere. You’re too embarrassed to admit you weren’t paying attention and just hope you missing that bit won’t damage the relationship.

Evaporating words is one reason we want to harness that Bonus Brain Time mentioned above. Keeping focused on the speaker will help prevent this. Another tip is to take notes. Though not practical for many conversations, it is one tool in your listening toolbox that can be helpful in many circumstances.


“Self-Centered” means to be preoccupied with oneself and one’s own affairs. Often when we are in conversation our focus is us. What do I want to gain from this discussion? What do I want to say next? How can I prove my point? Again, this speaks to how we use our Bonus Brain Time. If my focus in our conversation is me, what are the chances I’ll ever reach super-power listening skills?

Now, there is a difference between being self-centered and being self-aware, a huge difference. Self awareness is linked to “Meta-cognition” which is something we’ll talk more about in a later post. Basically it means “Thinking about our thinking.” For our topic we could say it means, “Thinking about our listening as we’re doing it.” This self-awareness is a powerful tool for developing our listening skills. Self-Centeredness is the opposite.

Some other barriers to good listening include:

Prejudice – If we have preconceived ideas about the other person, their motives, position on a topic, or anything else, it will inhibit our ability to listen to them.

Stress – is like static in our brain and blocks out other people.

Anger – is similar to stress in its effect. When we’re angry, even if it’s not with the person who is speaking, the emotion blocks our ability to listen.

Distractions – seems pretty basic, but background noise, cell phones, TV, etc are kryptonite to super-power listening.

There are many other possible barriers to listening. How many can you think of? Understanding what can prevent good listening goes a long way in helping us get better at it – if we take steps to remove those barriers.

How Many Bars Do You Have?

Listening is all about connecting. If we think about connecting in general one thing that comes to mind is signal strength, on your wireless network or your phone for example. “How many bars do you have?” We’ve all heard and asked that question many times. It refers, of course, to the strength of your phone’s connection to a nearby tower. For our purposes that question refers to how strong is your connection to the people around you? 

Your Connection Strength

I’m not a fast reader. In fact, I’m a pretty slow and cumbersome reader which is frustrating because I love to read. Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to read a book about speed reading. I don’t remember the name of the book. Maybe that’s because it didn’t help me read any faster, but one testimonial in the book caught my attention. One person who had mastered the skill of speed reading described what it was like for them to read a novel at the speed they had achieved. They said it was like reading at the speed of thought so that they were drawn into the book and felt as though they were actually experiencing the scenes and events as they were being described.

That’s the kind of connection I’m talking about having with the people in your life. As you listen to (connect with) them you are drawn into their story and it’s as though you are actually experiencing the scene and/or event they are describing through their eyes. That’s when listening achieves super-power status, when you begin to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

What if you were able to experience the day with your spouse or friend while they told you about it? What if you could actually see yourself as your boss sees you during your annual evaluation? Pick someone important to you. How would your world change if you could actually see through their eyes, walk in their shoes, for awhile? How would their world change? How would the whole world change if everyone could do that?

Another Analogy

Another analogy I like to use when talking about listening is to say that “Listening is a Full Contact Sport.” Excellent listening involves all of you, your whole body. Our hearing impaired colleagues and family members understand this better than those with full hearing. “Listening” is not just about what we pick up with our ears. 

In coming posts we will focus on different dimensions of listening associated with different parts of your body. We’ll talk about listening with our ears, of course. But, we’ll also talk about listening with our eyes and with our mouths (yes, I said “Mouths”). We’ll talk about listening with our heart, our gut, our brain, and even our hands and feet. Developing skills related to each of these dimensions will greatly improve your connection strength as you develop your super power.

Before those posts, we will talk about some of the bad habits that most often cause static in our connections or disconnect us completely. Then we’ll spend some time on “skill drills” that will hone that super-power listening and make it a habit.Watch for these posts.

We publish every Monday morning.

How Soft is Listening?

We’ve seen that “Hard Number” business outcomes are directly related to Employee Engagement. Now we want to explore what Listening has to do with all of it. Any element of Employee Engagement must involve interaction between employees and especially between employees and their immediate supervisor. Interaction implies conversation or dialogue which, in turn, implies that someone is talking and someone (hopefully) is listening.

Remember the 12

Remember the Gallup organization’s 12 questions from my last post? Three of them are directly related to the listening abilities of managers.

#3 Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? – How does the boss know what someone’s best at? This question presupposes observation and dialog between the employee and the boss.

#5 Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person? – Caring is often communicated through listening

#7 At work, do my opinions seem to count? – No one would even know what an employee’s opinions are without listening.

In their book, First, Break all the Rules, the authors show which of all 12 questions tie to which of the five business outcomes: Profit, Safety, Productivity, Customer Loyalty, and Employee Retention. Most tie to more than one. Question number 5 “Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?” is one of only two that directly ties to all desired outcomes. The other two listening questions are linked to customer satisfaction, profitability and productivity. Seem important?

We’ve all heard the saying, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Think about the people in your life who have made the biggest impact on you. I’m talking about people you know personally. What was it about them that was so important to you? I’d be willing to bet you felt like they cared about you, they took a personal interest in you. How did you know they cared? How did you know they were interested in you? Did they understand you? Did they support your dreams and passions? How did they come to understand you and know your dreams and passions? They Listened.

How Do You Deliver Results?

Organizations often develop programs, have contests, and deliver edicts designed to improve Safety, Customer Loyalty, Productivity, Employee Retention and Profitability with some success. Certainly they will have more success than organizations that ignore any of those metrics. But, most organizations focus on those things. So, what makes the difference between highly successful and just average organizations? The “Soft Stuff.”

So, here’s a question. If the “Soft Stuff” like opinions, caring, and listening, are required to deliver the hard numbers, does that make the “Soft Stuff” hard stuff? Maybe not according to the strict definitions of business measures, but for many business leaders it is very hard stuff (read “difficult”). Listening is a skill. Like any other challenging skill you’ve learned to become a leader, it can be learned.

What’s the value of Listening? If Employee Engagement is the heart of Organizational performance then Listening is the life-blood of Employee Engagement.

The Soft Side of Hard Numbers

“I don’t have time for all this touchy-feely stuff. I need results.” I’m sure you’ve heard or maybe even said something like this before. In tough economic times with competitors breathing down our necks it’s understandable that business leaders need to focus on the bottom line. We need to measure and control all those factors that contribute to a healthy profit. Things like customer loyalty, employee retention, productivity and safety all contribute to a healthy bottom line. They can be measured in hard numbers. How do you measure “Listening?” What does Listening have to do with anything? Who has time for all this “soft” stuff?

Why the Soft Stuff Matters

In their book, First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman outline the results of a 25-year Gallup study on World Class Management. The study cut across industries, countries, sizes of business, for-profit and non-profit and public and private sector organizations. In their book the authors focused on 12 survey questions that, sometimes counter intuitively, tied directly to desired organizational outcomes (in other words, “Hard Numbers”).

The Gallup study showed that those companies that reflected positive responses to the 12 questions

  1. Profited more
  2. Were more productive as business units
  3. Retained more employees per year
  4. Satisfied more customers
  5. Worked more Safely

Here are Gallup’s 12 questions:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last 7 days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last 6 months, has someone talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?

What the Cows Know

The California Dairy Producers aired a series of popular TV Ads. In the ads there were dairy cows in a variety of situations. These cows talked to each other about different funny things always showing that the California Cows are the happiest cows in the business. Each of the ads ended with the tag line, “The best Milk (or cheese) comes from Happy Cows and Happy Cows come from California.” Without satisfying an employee’s basic needs first, a manager can never expect the employee to give stellar performance.

In essence that’s what the Gallup study (and several others2) showed. Happy (or “Engaged”) employees are 5 times more likely to deliver on an organization’s desired outcomes than those that are not “Engaged” and far more so than the employees who are actively disengaged. Employee Engagement (“Soft Stuff”), then, drives Customer Loyalty, Employee Retention, Productivity, Safety and Profitability (“The Hard Numbers”). Furthermore, these five organizational metrics are trailing indicators of organizational health. You don’t know what the numbers are until the close of the reporting period. On the other hand, if your Employee Engagement scores are trending up it’s a good indicator that your other metrics will also improve. Employee Engagement is more of a leading indicator of organizational health.3

Here’s how Gary C. Kelly, President, Chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines put it:

We’ve always “hung our hat” on providing the best Customer Service in the business, at a low cost. Now, I realize that almost any company would (and should) say that, so, you may be wondering, “What’s the difference at Southwest?” The difference is this: Everything begins and ends with our People. If we keep our employees happy and engaged, they will keep our Customers happy, who will reward us with their loyalty. That repeat business helps our bottom line and adds value to our Shareholders.4

This “touchy-feely stuff” might just deserve more attention than you thought. Improving a manager’s, a department’s or a business unit’s scores on these questions has been statistically proven to improve that entity’s other metrics. So, what does all this have to do with listening? That’s what the next several posts will explore.


1 Depending on the type of organization, these metrics may be slightly different. However, the connection between Organizational outcomes of any type and these elements remains intact.

2 Harvard Business School study The Service Profit Chain, as well as studies by the Dale Carnegie organization and others.

3 Gallup, Q-12 Meta-Analysis, c. 1993 – 1998, 2006

4 Gary C. Kelly, “Making Connections”, Spirit Magazine, September 2013

The Super Power You Didn’t Know You Have

The other day one of my daughters asked me a random question. “What super power would you want to have, Dad?” I immediately thought of flying. I’ve always wanted to fly. How cool would it be to jump up and fly to wherever you wanted to go? So, without hesitation, I answered, “To fly!” She nodded, “Yeah, that would be cool!” she said, and moved on to ask the next unsuspecting family member.

Super Heroes have super powers they use to help people. They stop acts of terror, foil criminal plots, rescue people from danger and generally set things right. We love Super Heroes. But, after the movie is over or we’ve put down the book for the last time and returned to reality, we remember there’s no such thing as super heroes. There are no super powers that can fix the real problems we have at home, school, church or at work. Or, are there?

Do You Have a Super Power?

I would like to propose to you that we all have an underdeveloped super power. It may not make you faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but this power can transform your relationships, strengthen the effectiveness of your organization, and propel your business outcomes. This underdeveloped super power we all have is the power of listening. “Wait a minute!” you may object. “Super powers, by definition, are active. They DO something powerful. Listening is so . . . passive. You just sit there while someone else is talking.”

I think your objection has hit the nail on the head regarding why this powerful tool remains so underdeveloped. We misunderstand the nature of listening. In a Forbes online article entitled “Are You Using the Most Powerful Leadership Skill?”, consultant Erika Andersen rightly referred to listening as the “Clark Kent” of Leadership Skills.1  Because we see it as passive it seems mild mannered and . . . well . . . weak. That’s exactly what people thought of Clark Kent. Then he stepped into the phone booth!

But listening is powerful. Fortunately many people are waking up to the power of listening. Some have tried to overcome the objection to listening’s seemingly passive nature by talking about “Active Listening.” That’s helpful because listening is not something that happens to you (passive), it is something you do (active). Because it’s interpersonal, the power of listening is universally applicable. It will transform your business (inter departmental, intra-team, with customers and vendors), healthcare (Physicians and Nurses, Doctor and patient), church (boards, when conflict arises, visitors and new members), school (parents, teachers, administration, students), family, club . . . all of life because it transforms relationships.

Don’t Take My Word For It

Here’s what one contributor to Harvard Business Review’s HBR Blog Network observed:

My knowledge of corporate leaders’ 360-degree feedback indicates that one out of four of them has a listening deficit—the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers, and if it’s the CEO with the deficit, derail the company.

For leaders, listening is a central competence for success. At its core, listening is connecting. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively. This is why, in 2010, General Electric—long considered the preeminent company for producing leaders—redefined what it seeks in its leaders. Now it places “listening” among the most desirable traits in potential leaders. Indeed, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has said that “humble listening” is among the top four characteristics in leaders.2

Listening, far from being passive, is powerful because it allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Now that sounds more like a super power! Imagine the advantages of knowing how your boss or co-worker or spouse or competitor sees and understands the world.

In my next few posts I will outline the case for the power of listening as a direct contributor to hard organizational outcomes, reveal the necessary heart of powerful listening, and give you some exercises to help develop your listening power.


1  Erika Andersen Founding Partner of Proteus International. A Forbes article called “Are you using the most powerful leadership skill?”
2  “The Discipline of Listening,” by Ram Charan. Harvard Business Review (HBR Blog Network). June 21, 2012