Listening Is Hard

by Stephen T. Messenger

October 26, 2021

I often get unsolicited directions. The kind where I casually mention a place I’m going, and a friendly soul steps in to explain the best way to get there using “third lefts” and unidentifiable landmarks. 

Thankfully, Google Maps has all but eliminated the need to interpret unclear directions. I can all but tune out which number traffic light to look for, and my brain stops processing data it doesn’t think it needs. I’m hearing the words but failing to listen. Not one of my better qualities.

Leaders listen to their people. They ask for advice, opinions, and recommendations. They counsel through two-way communication. And they truly want to have a dialogue, not a monologue.

Every interaction is a chance to learn, but often leaders tune out other people while awaiting their turn to respond. Some think their information is more important than those around them. Often, they can sit through a meeting that doesn’t interest them without listening at all.

If a leader is in the room, no matter the topic, they need to be fully engaged. At an elite military planning school, we were told the best planners can listen to any conversation about any subject and be able to intelligently add to the discussion.  Even ones they find uninteresting.

This requires work.  

Broken down, listening has five steps:

1. Hear. The brain is an expert at hearing what it wants to. Much like you can pick out your name in a background conversation, you hear what’s important to you. With the next conversation or meeting you don’t care about, convince yourself that the topic is of critical importance. Your brain will follow.

2. Understand. Process the information and make sure your meaning matches the one who said it. This requires special attention to body language and tone. One of my greatest weaknesses in communication is reading non-verbal cues. By recently focusing on this, I’ve found I understand the real meaning of the words better.

3. Evaluate. Process the information and decide what’s truly important to you. You’re not going to use it all but take away some highlights for the future.

4. Remember. I write down everything at work in a small notebook. It has meeting dates and notes I may want to recall later, to-do lists from last month, good ideas I heard or dreamed up, and leadership nuggets from other people. The most valuable part of the book is contact numbers of people I’ve met along with their interests or kids’ names that I can ask about next time we speak. If you’re terrible at remembering like me, write it down.

5. Respond. Leaders have to be flexible enough to adjust their message as they’re speaking. Pay attention to the room and make sure your message is getting across. If you’re getting a bunch of tilted heads and raised eyebrows, it’s time to adjust it.     

If someone is talking to us, we should be listening. This doesn’t mean checking phones or daydreaming but demonstrating real leadership through respect and care of those taking the time to interact with us.

And while Google Maps is nice, you never know what nugget you’ll learn by listening to those directions.


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