The Gift Of Listening
By Stephen Doherty
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand
and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
In Stephen Covey’s best selling book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” one tenet stands out above all the rest. “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” It underscores not just the value of listening and understanding, but the sheer necessity of it. There are few handicaps in life more profound than being a poor listener. There are few advantages more powerful than being a terrific listener. Communicating well — with brevity, clarity, and focus — is a talent that’s highly valued in business. We celebrate leaders who can explain complex ideas, tell stories, and make the intangible obvious to those around them. But the talent of a skilled listener in hearing and understanding that message, whether in the boardroom or around the Thanksgiving table, is just as important.
In the business world, deals and relationships are born of trust earned over time. I meet with dozens of new potential clients every month over coffee, lunch, breakfast, or boardrooms. Two things occur at these meetings. One, I rarely discuss business. I spend the time getting to know someone with the first possibility being new friendships. I ask questions about their families and interests. I rarely break eye contact as I want to convey to them that my interest is genuine and sincere. If a business discussion emerges on a first meeting, it’s rarely me who initiates it. My goal is to “Seek to Understand.” If I can’t accomplish that, there is little point or purpose to “Seeking to be Understood.” This is not an easy skill to acquire or excercise. We live in a world of deadlines and distractions that are so capable of taking us out of the moment and diminishing our authenticity in the eyes of those we share discussions with.
Beyond business, I would argue that listening skills provide such a wonderful opportunity to not just hear, but to “see” things in people that are necessary and crucial to healthy relationships. Hearing is just the process of absorbing words and extrapolating rote meaning as mechanically as a spreadsheet spits out totals of columns and rows. When you truly listen, your ears become eyes to the heart and soul of the person sharing their thoughts with you. Is there anything more gratifying than not just being heard…but being understood? Do we not feel exceptional bonding with people we believe have genuine interest in us? How many relationships could have been salvaged had listening been valued over mere hearing? How many friendships have been lost to careless communications that convey disinterest and apathy over genuine interest?
I have also come to believe in the value of listening by the rarity in which it is extended. Genuinely good listeners are not extinct, but becoming rarer in an ever more distracted culture and society. Despite my own efforts at engagement, I never cease to be amazed at the lack of genuine interest put forth by so many. One rule I try and live by in both my personal and professional life is this. If I spend time with someone, anyone, and they don’t express genuine interest and inquisitiveness during the course of the engagement? This is a relationship I can not only do without, but in so doing-I’ve alleviated a great burden on my own heart and soul. Because while listening is indeed a valuable and necessary practice, the art of authentic reciprocation is easily its equal. Life is too brief and too precious to tolerate disinterest – from anyone. People who cannot listen but only hear deserve neither our tolerance nor accomodation.
“The more you talk about them, the more important they will feel.
The more you listen to them, the more important you will make them feel.”