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Listening to understand

The number of meetings I attend in a week can be a pretty substantial number. Meetings are one of the many things I wish I would have kept a running total of since my first day at this job. I also wish I would have tracked the total number of sticky notes I have used since day one here. Strange, I know.

I’ve attended enough meetings to have made many hours of observations on how people conduct themselves during meetings. Combine that with the lesson I have taught in communication classes about listening, and it led to me to realize that listening was a skill I could most certainly improve.

Over the years, I have consciously tried to practice better listening. I would position myself appropriately, remove distractions when possible, and take notes or doodle while listening because it helped keep me focused on what was being said. Even though doodling or writing can give the appearance that I am not paying attention, for me, it helps me focus and listen more intently. My listening improved by doing those things and by being conscious of the need to be a better listener, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across a quote that I now have written on a sticky note (number 4,349 of 5,000 perhaps) and stuck to my desk, that I really grasped what it was I needed to do.

This quote was originally from Stephen Covey I do believe, or at least that’s what Google tells me. The quote is, “Listen to understand and not to reply.” How perfect! That’s exactly what I needed to read to understand better what I needed to do to become a better listener, but it also helped me understand the behavior of others at meetings.

Let’s dissect that. Listen to understand and not to reply.

If you are listening to reply, then what are you doing? Not fully listening because you are too busy crafting your next statement in your mind. I don’t think we purposely do this to be ineffective, instead I think it mostly happens because we want to make sure we get our message across and so we don’t have to take a pause to think after we are done listening. For some reason, we view that pause and moment of silence as a negative thing.

If we are quick to respond, what have we missed in the process? We miss fully comprehending what is being said, we miss the opportunity to completely think through what it means to us, and we miss the opportunity to craft a more meaningful and more valuable response. We miss the opportunity to listen to understand because we are too busy listening simply to offer a reply.

In observing behavior and communication at meetings, I can pick out the people who are already listening to understand, and those who aren’t. Those who don’t listen to understand first, and are listening while crafting a reply can seem very judgmental, dismissive, and not accepting of anyone else’s ideas or thoughts. It can appear that they only care about the words they utter and not what is really being communicated by anyone else. Although they are taking the time (while someone else is talking) to think through a response, they are missing much of what the other person is saying and perhaps don’t even end up replying to the fullness of the communication.

Those who are listening to understand tend to have a thoughtful look on their face. Their responses are measured and crafted, and not quick to be shared. They don’t speak with quantity but instead with valuable quality. It is quite impressive because it is not an easy skill to master. But I am convinced that it is always better to listen to understand and not simply to provide a reply.

Listening is an important skill. It is one that I need to continue to practice. It is one that I witness many people struggle with, but I’m not sure those who listen to reply know the difference between listening to understand and listening to reply. It would be a kinder, probably more efficient environment if we would take those words seriously and practice listening to understand and not to reply.

Jackie Krawczak is president/CEO of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Thursdays. Follow Jackie on Twitter @jkrawczak.