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Architects: Are You Listening? (Part 1)

According to Lee Howell, the World Economic Forum's global head of programming, the leaders at DAVOS need to be in "active listening mode":

"People come to the annual meeting and they have their institutional mandate and goals they seek," Howell said. "But they need to be less in speaking mode and more in listening mode. It's really an exercise in active listening — to understand what the Chinese might be saying on 'X' topic, or what the French feel about 'Y' topic… The chance of a more resilient and robust solution stems from that."* 


Have you ever heard of Active Listening? Well, it might just transform your conversations, develop your presence as a leader and help your team collaborate more effectively. Sounds like a critical leadership skill that we cannot ignore. So, what is active listening and how does it improve the chances of a "more resilient and robust solution" that Howell desires? In this 2-part article, I will endeavour to explain traditional listening - or how we listen when we don't think about it - (part 1) and active listening - how we can listen when we do think about it (part 2). 

Part 1: Traditional Listening

Howell's comment could extend to any type of meetings or conversations. From a speaker in front of a group, to team meetings, to one to one conversations. If you looked closely at the speaker and listener roles, you might notice that people tend to fall into certain expected behaviours. Conversation is speaker focused and speaker driven - they hold the power. The listener is (generally!) focused on the speaker, picking up clues in language and visuals to help define and understand the overall message. Often, the overall effect, though, is one of the listener being a bit-player; deadpan, motionless, there to be entertained or fed information. We've all been in meetings or had conversations where we've just sat back and let the words drift over us in a haze. 

As listeners, we leave little opportunity to think about how our listening is perceived by the speaker. 

When the speaker is faced with a passive listener it's not surprising that they have no idea what you are thinking - are you really interested? bored? away with the fairies? Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) says that "next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival - to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated." If a listener is not giving the speaker that psychological well being, what do they do? Personally, I have felt the need to ask the audience:

  • Am I being clear? 
  • Are you with me so far? 
  • Does that make sense? 

A hunt for feedback from the listener. And how do you respond to the speaker in return - a weak smile, a small nod of the head, a quick change of posture? A minimal gesture of feedback. More often than not, especially in larger groups, the speaker is faced with a sea of blank stares.

How do you communicate to the speaker that you are listening? 

Are we so used to technology, screen time, that requires no visual or verbal feedback, that we have grown to assume that any feedback is an infringement on the speakers right to be heard, as a breach of politeness or an unwarranted interruption? Even if we are committed to listening intently, we soon run out of focus power. Losing concentration, our mind wanders, distraction and bias enters and our conversation becomes one that is at a distance.

For all the speaker knows, you could be:

  • In the wrong time-zone. Stuck back on a comment made 15min ago...or speeding ahead of the speaker in fast-forward mode.
  • Distracted. Why hasn't the speaker had surgery to remove the humongous mole on the side of their chin? 
  • Ignoring. I know all this already, why am I even in this meeting?

Or distracted by any one of a number of emotional, physical, cognitive, beliefs, biases, thoughts and filters. All can wreak havoc on our ability to listen. 

I believe the average listener operates under two principals: 

  1. The path of least effort
  2. The topic must interest you 

As listener's we want only the relevant information, readily available and beautifully packaged, delivered to our door and right now. Only, when it comes to everyday conversations, we rarely get it that way. It's hard work to figure out the main points from the fluff. It's hard work to get past the accent and the funny shirt. It's hard work to figure out the real intent behind the words. But if you don't do this, it's not really a good conversation is it?

It is time to challenge the traditional listener role and think about our listening in a more strategic manner. As an industry, we can't keep talking about collaboration and improved quality of stakeholder relationships without adjusting our role as listeners.

We need to think of listening as a form of engagement, not a form of solitude. 

We need to start thinking about listening with strategy, with empathy and with the speaker's needs in mind. Why? Because active listening can leverage higher levels of understanding and rapport. Feedback to the speaker can greatly enhance their confidence, their assertiveness and their openness. And that feedback will simultaneously allow you as the listener to focus better - it is a major element in concentration control. So how about we give it a try?

In part 2 of this article, I will write about the attributes of the active listener and its effects on the speaker and the conversation. 

*Global Leaders at DAVOS Need to Listen