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Are You Listening?


As we make our way through the end of Q4 of 2019, it is a time of hustle and bustle. It is a time to reflect on our organizational challenges and successes, and for many of us that means year-end reporting, and measuring how we have done in the quarter and throughout the year against our strategic objectives and stated deliverables. It’s also a pressure-laden time at home, for many of us, with the holiday season bearing down. It can be challenging for the most focused leaders to be present in the workday and to listen.

As the pace of work has increased over the years, we have tried to improve our ability to get more done, be more efficient with our time, cut out the waste to be most productive and successful at achieving results. Even some of the traditionally slower paced industries are feeling pressures to do more with less, as budgets have been trimmed or as demand has slowed. This type of work environment can be a minefield when the humans need to get things done through other humans. When it is necessary to build connections and cultivate relationships with people to accomplish the work, running at top speed is likely to cause us to trip and fall.

Listening is a necessary skill for a number of reasons. Besides needing to accurately receive and interpret information to understand what we hear in conversation; listening is one of the ways we learn. Listening is critical to effective communication. By actively listening we are more likely to understand and retain information. Besides the immediate needs of the listener, actively listening demonstrates respect for the person who is speaking. By listening to understand, we are giving our time and showing interest in what is being said. This give and take is necessary to forming and fostering effective relationships.

According to Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens in their Harvard Business Review article Listening to People , “the average rate of speech for most Americans is around 125 words per minute. This rate is slow going for the human brain, which is made up of more than 13 billion cells and operates in such a complicated but efficient manner that it makes the great, modern digital computers seem slow-witted.” They suggest that this discrepancy allows spare time for thinking about other things and that most people do not use that spare time wisely.

I hear tales of leaders who sit in one-on-one (in-person) meetings with their employees intending to provide time to connect and catch up on the happenings at work, and while being partly engaged in the conversation the leader is frequently distracted by the beeps and bings of incoming email and text messages. Beyond the immediate distraction from the alert, the leader proceeds to check the incoming emails and text messages and even sometimes responds, all while still attempting to engage in the live conversation with their employee. We are all to some extent guilty of this type of distraction, but the result is that employees often feel disrespected.