Do we listen or just hear?

Do we listen or just hear?
By Jiten Patel (2020)

Recently, I came across a quote from @Patwadors, (Chief Talent Officer at ServiceNow (CHRO) - LinkedIn Learning Instructor - Board Member), stating that, “When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become a wiser, more inclusive, and better organization.”

The key word that resonated for me was “listen”. How often is it that we have not been attentive to what is said because we have other things on our mind, or because we are preparing what we wish to say next? In such situations, maybe we have only merely heard what was said. It reminded of a time when my youngest child was about six years old. The school was closed for a teacher training day and I was working from home so that I could look after my daughter; my wife and I aimed to take turns with childcare so the onus was not on just one person to always be the primary carer of our children. 

With a deadline to get a report written for a piece of research I had been doing for a client, it required just an hour or 2 to finish it, I needed something for my daughter to do so that I could concentrate on getting the job done. I decided that I had found the perfect activity. Having got everything ready, I asked my daughter to paint me a picture. The following conversation ensued:

Father: Sweetheart, can you paint a picture for daddy?
Child:   What shall I paint, daddy?
Father: Paint me a picture of a house with a big garden and a nice tree and lots of flowers and grass.
Child:   Can we have a dog in the garden?
Father: Yes, do whatever you like, sweetheart.

I was allowing myself to get a little irritated when my daughter started her painting and kept asking me things like, “do you like the house, daddy?” I needed to concentrate on my report. I glanced briefly at the floor by my desk and said that it was lovely and carried on. Cutting a long story short this went on for some time, when my daughter said, “Daddy, look. the grass is brown, the sun is pink, and the tree is yellow.”

“Yes, yes, lovely sweetheart.” Suddenly my daughter said, “Daddy!”. Her tone made me stop and I looked at her and asked, “What is it, sweetheart?”

Child:   You weren’t listening
Father: I heard everything you said.
Child:   But, daddy, YOU WEREN’T LISTENING.

It was a sobering lesson for me from my 6-year-old! How often is it that we are merely going through the motions? The lesson my daughter taught me that day has never left me. Even today, when one of my direct reports comes to me and asks if I have five minutes, I make a point of actually stopping what I am doing to ensure they have my attention, or ask if it can wait because I am in the middle of something I can’t take my attention from. 

The principle of active listening becomes even more pertinent when we have people in our team who are in the minority and/or from culturally diverse backgrounds. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that they feel they are not heard, especially in the boardroom. More accurately, as my daughter taught me, they were not listened to. When they do contribute to a meeting, they are either ignored or talked over. I have had reported to me, for example, by a woman on an executive board, that when she suggested or recommended a course of action, it was overlooked. However, when a male colleague brought similar information to the table, later in the same meeting, it was given serious attention.

Often people from certain cultural backgrounds will sit quietly in meetings because their upbringing required them to be quiet until they were invited to speak. Such individuals are often accused of not being team players and of being aloof. It is equally important to actively listen to, not only what is being said, but to what is not being said, too. Such examples demonstrate how inherent biases play out, usually without individuals having any awareness of them.

At a recent review of Inclusive Leadership for a client, I was told by the CEO that everybody on the board was recruited based on their ability to do the job; they did not discriminate and treated all board members equally. Treating everyone equally is different to treating them equitably; a classic sign of leaders failing to practise conscious inclusion. In order to get the best outcomes for the organisation, amongst other things, an inclusive leader needs to demonstrate active listening with the intention of bringing out the best from each member of that team; inclusive leaders:

  • Listen actively with an intent to understand.
  • Listen for what is being said as well as what is not being said.
  • Demonstrate that they have actively listened and then provide reasoned responses.
  • Understand that diverse members of the team may need to be encouraged to contribute; their reservedness may be more an indication of cultural conditioning rather than capability.
  • Encourage all their team to also listen rather than just hear.


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