"Listening is not a multi-task"

As part of our commitment at OFC to be principle driven leaders, I have made a list of more than 75 principles that guide our actions and decisions.  “Listening is not a multi-task” is #15 on the list.  I don’t remember how long my wife and I had been married when I got my first lesson on listening, though I remember the moment.  We were sitting in the living room, watching television, her perusing a magazine and I a book.  She asked me a question and I responded affirmatively with a nod and a “uh-huh.”  What happened next has been hotly disputed within our family for years.  This is my version.  A pillow came from across the room hitting me, spilling the coffee I was drinking into my lap…where the cat was sleeping.  First there was a girlish scream (mine, I’m afraid.) Have you ever had a cat try to get out of your lap fast? (Don’t judge me.)

What came next was care for the cat, which was fine, and then the question: “Why did you do that?”  Her response was filled with laughter. “For the last few minutes I’ve been talking to the cat and you’ve been responding as if I was talking to you.  You weren’t listening to me. You were just pretending to listen.”  That’s my version and since this is my blog, it’s the only version you’re going to get.  What’s not in dispute is that I was only partially listening.  I heard a sound I recognized to be the voice of someone I loved.  I recognized the need to respond.  I responded, but I did so without hearing what was actually being said. 

Here’s the point: Effective listening is not a multi-task.  Even though I’m still learning how to listen, there are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. The eyes of the listener need to be focused on the person speaking.   
  2. The mouth of the listener needs to be closed.  I used to tell my kids when they interrupted me, “I can’t hear you, I’m talking.”  Humans don’t listen well with their mouth open. 
  3. The mind of the listener needs to be centered on capturing what is being said, instead of constructing what’s going to be said in response. 
  4. The first response after effective listening should be to verify what we’ve heard; not dispatch data as a cure. 

The truth is we won’t always listen the way we should. Sometimes casual conversation results in casual listening.  This isn't all bad; though leaders know that there is a time when listening is the mission of the moment.  Often success depends not on what is said, but on what is actually heard.