The second decade of the new millennium will go down as the loudest in history. Over the last ten years in politics, loud, outspoken populists, from all sides of the political spectrum, spurred polarization and divided nations globally. At the same time in business, it has seemed as though the louder the cries of the untouchable entrepreneur, the higher the perceived value of their company, regardless of quantifiable success. Politicians and companies, alike, have been built up solely on bluster and hype, rather than credibility or scientific backing. But no, there are no prizes for guessing the key figureheads here, as there are countless to choose from and we all know the main culprits.
In the media world, a new landscape began to emerge in which bellowing out the news over the top of each other seemed to be the only means by which to be acknowledged and, ultimately, stand the test of time. Similarly in everyday life, social media had us questioning whether an event actually happened unless it was emphatically proclaimed to hoards of followers and resulted in a viral outbreak and the inevitable onslaught of countless, and admittedly hilarious, memes.
Among all this noise, with everyone shouting ever more loudly to be heard, listening very much took a backseat. The critical problem here is that when no one listens, good ideas get drowned out, and we lose the opportunity to build great things that encompass the complexities of human thought. Sadly, it is very often the case that it’s those who are able to shout the loudest, rather than those with the most well thought out concepts, or the most trustworthy experience, who are heard, and they are the ones who get their own way.
Moving into the third decade of this millennium, we will see this sort of behaviour confined to the parameters of the playground, where it belongs. The tides are set to turn and we are already beginning to see tangible examples of this sea change. Given time, the loudest voices will become less and less dominant, and the age of listening will begin.
We only have to look to the young girl who has already set a global revolution in motion. By skipping school once a week to call for stronger action on climate change, Thunberg provides us with a great example of this shift through her core message – listen to science rather than the prevailing voices of naysayers.
However, for this change to happen on a seismic scale it is important not to fall down the trap of thinking that bad listeners are always bad people. It is rare that people when in conversation don’t try to interrupt or shift the conversation onto themselves. You will likely know someone close to you who could be classed as a bad listener, though if you don’t, it is likely that you yourself are that person.
We are taught classes in debate, rhetoric and elocution, but we are never taught how to truly listen. What’s more, our society is increasingly shying away from real-life face-to-face conversations, and even phone calls, in favour of instant messaging and digital conversations which require no listening at all. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that it is a skill that many struggle to master.
So what does it actually means to listen and how you can go about becoming better at it? It may sound obvious, but listening goes far beyond just hearing what people say. According to Kate Murphy, author of ‘You’re Not Listening’, it also involves paying attention to the way in which they say it, what they are doing while saying it, in what context it is being said, and how what they say resonates within you. This leaves little room for distraction and requires listeners to avoid the temptation to formulate a response while someone is still speaking, a process commonly referred to as active listening.
Of course, a lot of listening does have to do with how you respond, but this needs to be grounded in openness and a willingness to truly follow and understand another person’s message without presumption or getting sidetracked by what’s going on in your own head. This is no easy task and is something that we are all guilty of from time to time. Try to counteract this with a mindful response, which can take the form of follow-up questions to acquire a deeper understanding or a summary of what has been said to confirm understanding rather than imposing our own agenda.
A culture of listening fosters an environment for learning and, for this reason, its power within the workplace cannot be overlooked, particularly in meetings, for example, where the whole reason for coming together in that way is to benefit from one another’s viewpoints and perspectives. Groups may not always agree with one another, but they can at least gain an understanding about each person’s background and influences, which is essential in reaching compromise and, taking this into the world of politics, maintaining a peaceful coexistence, which is highly preferable to the undignified signature slanging matches that often ensue.
Unfortunately, as noted by Professor Francesca Gino, an expert in the psychology of organizations, the competitive world of business rewards good self-presentation and this often manifests in a compelling desire to be heard and convince others that we have the best ideas. Listening takes a back seat in favour of standing out and for fear of how our performance will be perceived by others and this, she emphasizes, is not conducive to sustained workplace collaboration. Through careful analysis of a wide range of industries, Gino was able to conclude that this requires common mental attitudes including widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions and an openness to experimenting with others’ ideas. Both of which require real listening.
The ability to be fully present and give our colleagues our undivided attention can drastically improve the processes of exploring, learning, deciding, and, ultimately, growing together. This is so important not only from a personal development point of view but from a business growth standpoint too. It is hardly surprising then that, as part of his turnaround strategy for Microsoft when he took over as CEO in 2014, Satya Nadella prioritized the transformation of the company’s meeting culture implementing the three-rule method of: listen more, talk less, and be decisive when the time comes.
Listening is not easy, but there is much to be gained from its renaissance, particularly in a society where talking denotes so much of status. It takes awareness, motivation and practice and like with most skills, deteriorates over time if not done enough. It is, however, the change we need to see in an increasingly divided world. After all, it is only when we truly listen to understand each other that great things can happen.