Listening Is Overrated
By Tim Leberecht
“Everything that needed to be said was said, but no one was listening, so it needs to be said again,” the French writer André Gide once observed.
For decades, business literature has been replete with calls to elevate listening skills. From “Chief Listening Officers” to the Listen-Thinking methodology of the startup Tirezio, a plethora of solutions for deeper, more empathetic, and more active listening to the voices of customers, employees, and colleagues has been met with high demand. Books like Susan Cain’s seminal Quiet or David Rock’s Quiet Leadership have popularized listening as the secret sauce in a “world that can’t stop talking” and asserted the value of the introverted in spaces too often dominated by loudtalkers. Apparently, listening to employees helps you come up with new ideas, become a more effective leader, and boosts engagement and initiative. Listening to your opponents even makes your arguments more persuasive. Listening, we are told, is not only a prerequisite for more respectful, healthier relationships, the key to true emotional intimacy, and the foundation of our wellbeing — it is also a critical success factor in business. So we believe that only if we listen can we realize our full potential as individuals and in business.
But the steady drumbeat of “better listening” in business is counter-productive.
Listening is (too) hard
For one, for us humans, listening is indeed a daunting task — and might just be asking for too much. One challenge is a cognitive one: we are simply not wired for listening to each other, especially not in a time when the amount of words and sounds we produce disproportionally exceeds our capacity to process them.
The second challenge is psychological: if we truly listened to what another human says, fully immersing ourselves in their idiosyncratic truth, it could threaten our sense of self-sovereignty. As social animals, we can’t help but act as meaning-making chatterboxes with the evolutionary desire to impress ourselves on the world.
The third challenge is social: most of our interactions, particularly at the workplace, are usually too fast-paced and require us to respond too swiftly to be able fully absorb what someone else says. We must think one step ahead and pre-formulate our thoughts. We must advance the conversation in order to have a conversation.
A human workplace allows employees to tune out
You could even argue that effective leaders and managers need not really be good listeners, they must, rather, be expert at discerning what is worth listening to and what isn’t.
Not everyone is so lucky. For most employees, a bigger cruelty than non-listening or shallow listening lies in being forced to listen to too much: the oversharing of colleagues who spill their personal beans at the watercooler, at the team dinner, or the holiday party; the inspirational speeches of managers who pollute our minds and hearts with organizational and project missions we are asked to believe in; and the corporate jargon that infiltrates our own language so vigorously that we struggle to prevent it from spilling over into our homes — where, in a vicious cycle of peer pressure, our loved ones or flatmates then have to serve as an audience of “good listeners” who never signed up for that job in the first place.
Indeed, much of what we do at work is to listen to what managers and colleagues (and not the least, customers) have to say. The lower we are in the food chain, the more “active listening” is expected of us.
Too much is being said, too often
So the problem with listening is not only our inability to listen deeply constantly, it is also that too much is being said. Yes, honing our listening skills makes sense, but more importantly, those who have the word, and have it often, must be more economical with it.
For the real boost for our wellbeing does not come from listening per se, it comes from the power to choose to listen to what we really want to listen to. If all the management scholars, mostly white males, who write about listening, actually listened, not to the management canon, but to what workers told them they really wanted to listen to — and not — our workplaces would be better off.
The reality is this: When we sit across each other in meetings or are the audience for a presentation, our minds rush through vast landscapes of signals formed by information, opinions, experiences, memories, biases, an array of mental images, and feelings, to quickly arrive at a possible response that is reasonable, relevant, and typically conform with social values.
Sometimes, though, something magical happens. We are transcending the need to listen, the need to understand. We are just gazing at the other person with a sense of awe that is baseless, inexplicable, and uninformed, and utterly independent of what is actually being said. Instead of listening, we are wandering and wondering. We are not processing. And we are experiencing something far more important than listening: tenderness.
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Tim Leberecht is the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global platform and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.