How well do you listen?

Do you give people your full attention when they speak, or are you preparing a strategy and waiting for your turn to talk again?

Active listening involves hearing a person’s words, understanding their message and its importance to them, and communicating that understanding back to the person.

But how often do we actually do that?

In the paper Listening & Leadership: A Study on Their Relationship, the authors point out:

The apparent problem is, of all the communication skills, listening is the earliest learned and the most frequently used, yet it seems to be the least mastered.

As Kevin Sharer, Chairman & CEO of Amgen, reveals in an interview at McKinsey Quarterly, he wasn’t a very good listener in his younger days.

For most of my career, I was an awful listener in almost every possible way. I was arrogant throughout my 30s for sure—maybe into my early 40s. My conversations were all about some concept of intellectual winning and ‘I’m going to prove I’m smarter than you.’

He goes on to explain that his approach wasn’t evil or ego-driven, but that it was a natural extension of being “a striver” and wanting to get ahead. And that meant convincing people of his point of view.

Which did not require active listening –  or so he thought at the time.

But Sharer is older and wiser now.

He states, “As you become a senior leader, it’s a lot less about that and it’s a lot more about getting the best out of the people you work with. I shifted as a necessity to become a better listener.”

His pivotal moment occurred when he heard IBM Chairman Sam Palmisano explain why working in Japan was valuable in Palmisano’s leadership development:

Sam said, ‘Because I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I only was trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t trying to listen to critique. I wasn’t listening to object. I wasn’t listening to convince. I was listening solely for comprehension.’

Sharer points out that there’s time later for critique and argument, but that listening with the goal of comprehension enhanced his bandwidth for listening in a very meaningful way.

In his opinion, “Listening for comprehension only – that’s the greatest sign of respect you can give someone.”

This video contains excerpts of Sharer’s interview. Enjoy!

Have you ever had a listening-related epiphany? I’d love to hear about it!

Image courtesy of ky_olsen.