Listening: A Proportional Use of the Large Holes in our Head

One of the most powerful ways to connect is through listening. It’s a lesson I learned from my parents who ran a bakery where the customer was king. “Listen to what they like by what they actually buy,” Mom used to say as customers admired the delicate pastries but went for the chocolate chip cookies. Smart businesswoman, my Mom.

Inoculating me further on the power of listening was an English professor who almost every week, between reflections of Dickens and Beowulf, repeatedly underscored that we have three large holes in our head – and that we should use our ears and mouth in proportion. I’m not sure if his inspiration came from the works we read or from a scholarly fortitude to encourage our attention. Whichever, I’m thankful for the lesson.

There are many critical components to any communications strategy. But listening – proportionally using the large holes in your head – is one of the most important. After 35 years of delivering and coaching strategic communications through engagement programs, PR campaigns, change initiatives and crises, listening has often been the glue that holds the strategic planning, message development, content and context, channels, and audiences together. Listening is key.

Certainly, in an employee setting, listening is paramount to engaging and activating your employees to focus on your business. When it comes to employees, listening can build trust, accelerate innovation, enhance retention, make you a more empathetic (and better) leader, and mitigate crises before they happen and moderate them when they inevitably do happen. As Mom taught me – there is much wisdom in listening. It’s good for business.

Take the time to listen to what employees are really saying. We all like to be heard. It gives us validation. Employees certainly so. Practice your proactive listening skills. It takes effort. You need to be present. Don’t think about your response or solutions when the person hasn’t even finished his or her thought. Repeat what you heard and ask the employee if you captured the essence of what was shared. It takes courage to speak up; it takes patience to listen. A great way to listen is to ask questions for understanding. Start the dialog and listen carefully to learn. Be attentive. Take measure. Have a conversation that matters. It starts with listening – and it’s hard.

I also have learned that leaders need to take the time to listen to what employees are not saying. Recently, a manager shared an experience where she visited a site where employees were reportedly disgruntled. She traveled to the office, gathered everyone in a room and, as she said, “all you could hear were crickets.” That’s worth listening to. She read between the lines and realized one-on-ones was a better approach until she gained their trust. Silence can indeed be deafening – and oh so revealing. When you get a pointedly vague message from an employee, you need to listen to what’s not being shared. When your question is met with an ambiguous answer, what they’re not saying needs to be heard. As the management guru Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

My final reflection on listening is that you need to listen to yourself. We live in a noisy world exacerbated by the eruption of social media. Step away from the noise. Take the time to reflect. Listen to your inner critic. Indulge your imagination. Your core beliefs and values will serve you well as a leader. Trust them and your instincts and your inner voice will serve you well.

Listening is core to communications. It’s essential that you listen to what your audiences are saying and what they not saying. It’s also good for you to listen to what your intuition has to tell you. Do all of that, and you’ll be a better leader. And, if nothing else, you may sell more chocolate chip cookies by proportionately using the large holes in your head.