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Why Corporate America Doesn't Know How to Listen


Many businesses are wasting time and acting inefficiently. Marian Thier, of Expanding Thought, is on a mission to educate people about what listening is, why it's important, and how we can improve.

Editor's Note: This content was originally published on Business Pundit by Drea Knufken.

In order to be heard, you need to interrupt.

In order to share an idea in a corporate setting, you need to be fast.

If someone misunderstands you and does a project wrong, it's your fault for not communicating right.

This is American Business Listening 101. We rush through ideas because time is money. We interrupt one another in meetings because we want to prove our mettle. As a result, we waste hours of time and execute projects ineffectively.

If we could actually listen, we'd streamline communications within our teams, produce more accurate projects for leaders, even sell more to clients. So why don't we do it?

Because we don't know how. That's what Marian Thier, who runs the consulting, coaching, and training organization Expanding Thought, wants us to know. An expert in teaching businesspeople new ways of thinking, Thier recently realized that we have a serious listening deficit. Her new mission is to educate people about what listening is, why it's important, and how we can become better at it.

I caught up with Thier to learn more about the art and science of listening. Here's what she had to say.

Q: Can you talk a little bit how lack of listening skills could derail a leader?

Here's the most important thing a leader does: A leader makes decisions. If you don't listen fully, you don't get all the information you need to make a good decision. That's one way leaders are derailed.

Another responsibility of a leader is to be able to model behaviors. People coming up in the organization learn from the way you as a leader behave, so you best be an effective model.

When you don't listen fully, others are also apt to lose their attention. So they leave a lot of information on the table that's readily available to them. Because they are not appropriately listening to the situation at hand, they miss stuff and often make partially informed decisions.

Poor listening skills also prevent people from questioning, so they are not very critical in their thinking. They take things at face value. They trust the person who's talking rather than being able to analyze and diagnose the value of the information that's being put on the table.

There's just too much that's lost because they a) don't know how they listen, and b) don't know if how they're listening fits the situation.

Q: It sounds like learning to listen could save time and be a competitive advantage, because you would be so streamlined and efficient.

Totally. But if so much is riding on it, how come people aren't trying to develop those skills?

When I started to beta test this research, I learned that we form habits around the way we listen. Those habits become ingrained. We become very reliant on them without questioning whether that habit serves us well in a particular situation.

So how does that habit form? Brains begin to develop neural pathways very early in our lives. When information comes into the ear, the brain co-opts that information and takes it into an established neural pathway. Basically, our brains are pretty lazy. Our individual brains become wired for a certain kind of listening.

Another part of habit formation is physical. Say we're on a tennis court. When I play tennis, I have established all sorts of physical habits. For example, when the ball is coming my way, my body and brain all say, "Okay, I know that this is a forehand shot, so get ready for it." My opponent can read my posture to know where to place the ball. The same thing occurs when we're listening. The body puts out signals that say, "This is the way I look when I listen."

The next habit-former is psychology. When I get on the court and start thinking, "Oh no, something is going to hinder my back hand" or "Oh gosh, this is a strong player," I develop an emotional and psychological basis around all these messages. Same thing when you're listening. You look at somebody as they're talking and you might think, "That person reminds me of this really snappy boss I had, so I have to be very defensive when I listen, because if I don't assert myself, I'm not going to get listened to." Now you have another habit around something that has no merit, but it's locked up into your habitual way.

And then the last consideration is our behavior. What are the things we actually do? There are people who do very specific things in their behavior. They interrupt, for example.

Q: Then you try to help somebody understand what interrupting really is?

Interrupting is really a part of the interaction. The interrupter has something to say and wants to share it. Good listeners hold off until the speaker has concluded, but interrupters don't hold their tongue and break in, cutting off the train of thought and decreasing the amount of shared information.

Q: In every corporation I've worked in, especially the bigger ones, interruption and displays of assertiveness are ingrained in corporate culture. It's like you have to be the top dog to be heard.

More true in the Western nations than in the East.

Q: So with that kind of culture, how can you even afford to listen if you're so busy asserting your alpha status by interrupting everybody?

Probably the better question is, how can you afford not to listen? One of the things we're doing in my company is educating people about preferred listening habits to help them grasp the breadth of the topic. Most people agree that listening is critical, but they really know very little about it.

To increase knowledge of the field and one's self, I developed an assessment instrument that helps people understand which of four listening habits is their preferred habit.

To understand your habits is to raise awareness about how you listen. Part of the knowledge is being able to hold a mirror up to somebody and say, "This is the way you look when you listen. This is the way you attend when you listen. Is that the most effective way for you?" That's question number one.

Question number two is to ask whether there are ways to be more effective as a listener. One way is to watch someone and say, "I watched you in this interaction and you interrupted the speaker eight times in 10 minutes. What happened as a result of that?" That behavior is unconscious for most people.
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