Want to lead? First learn to listen…

When trying to get your message across, it is easy to think the most important part is conveying the message. Talking, speaking, telling others what we are thinking. But there is a lot to do before we get to this point and the most important part is listening.

‘Hear without listening’ - Leonardo da Vinci

I want to clear up the distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing is the physiological process of sound waves hitting your tympanic membrane and conveying electrical impulses to the brain. Listening is a psychological process of interpreting what is being said, using the information to derive meaning and understanding.

To demonstrate why listening is so important, it is perhaps easier first to to think of situations when listening is not employed. Think of a time when you are talking to someone and you know they are not listening. Then are not engaged with what you are saying, they asked you a question, but are uninterested. They are merely waiting for their turn to speak.

Annoying isn’t it? Frustrating? And do you feel good in that situation? More importantly, how do you feel about the person who isn’t listening?

So to flip this scenario back again. Consider the situation where you try to convey a message, a vision of what you want to do. If you have not listened to the other person, the outcome will only end in one conclusion. Listening is important and can be added to our other two skills, empathy and sincerity. But there is an interaction between empathy and listening. Really listening to an individual provides a unique insight into their thought process, their feelings and why they do the things they do.

As a side note, I am acutely aware of the irony of writing a blog post that is completely a one-sided conversation.
I therefore have one request - comment below, contact me, reach out - let me listen to what you have to say.

The problem of poor listening

The problem is that no one will tell you if you are a poor listening. Consider yourself in the situation above, when someone is talking at you, not considering what you are saying, asking you questions about things you have just explained, do you tell them that you find their lack of listening frustrating, or do you give them an abridged version of your answer and try and end the conversation as soon as possible? Then make a mental note to have less dealings with them?

The second problem is that we are all poor listeners at some point. There is a compulsion to speak in all of us and often this is exercised in preference to listening. However, the true art of active listening is hard, requires you to be engaged, alert and concentrating.

Poor listeners generally view listening as a passive exercise and therefore without value. Something I have observed when talking to many tech company representatives is their need to ‘make an impact’, the need to say something to demonstrate their intelligence or knowledge of the situation or their field. The problem is, I am often left feeling the opposite.

Rather than: “Our product is great, we are number one in our field, developed with key stakeholders and harnessing the latest in machine learning we are able to do X, Y and Z”. Then the expectant look of ‘we are impressive, why don’t you buy from us?’.

A better approach: “What is it you do?”, “wow that’s great, is there some technology solution you are particularly looking for or a problem you need help solving?”, “I think we could provide an excellent fit for your problem, we have this technology, it uses machine learning, that I think would really help you with X, what do you think?”

The difference is a sense of sincerity, a want to collaborate, to empathise and really understand. Rather than here’s my stuff, we are great, buy it.

Active Listening == Learning

Active listening is much the same as learning. Think of the last time you tried to learn something, but weren’t really engaged in the activity, perhaps it was some mandatory training, you didn’t get the best night’s sleep and you know if you get this done in the next hour, you can do something you really want to do. How did that go? Maybe you remembered some of it, but did it stick long term?

As a GP, I am acutely aware of the benefits of listening, you would be surprised how much more valuable information people are willing to share. Unfortunately, being a GP doesn’t mean you are automatically a good listener. I am sure there are times when we go to see a medical professional and feel their mind is somewhere else, or a lot of time is spent telling you as the patient what the problem and solutions are before the problem has been fully explored.

How to listen

By now, you may be thinking ‘ok, some of this listening thing may be a good idea, but how do I do it, how do I give it a try?’

Be aware of the distractions to active listening and mitigate them:

  • Content
  • Environment
  • Thinking

Distractions can be obvious, but their sources vary that they can often be missed, until you realise there was an important bit of the conversation you have missed. If the content or subject that is being discussed is of little importance, it is hard to stay focused and take in what is being said. It may be difficult at times to pick or change the content, but being aware of the risk and mitigating other factors can help.

Ensure the environment is appropriate. Talking with the TV on or in a noisy environment, when roadworks are underway outside, if there are visual distractions such as art work, music playing etc. All can contribute to distracting you.

A particular bug-bear of mine is the mobile phone in the conversation. I’m sure you have experienced it, but maybe it doesn’t create the same visceral response that it does in me. You are talking to someone and they have their phone in their hand, worse still they check the reason for it buzzing whilst you are talking.

Mobile phones have become pervasive, go to any meeting and you will see the phone on the desk (sometimes it will be face down, because that’s just considerate). The problem is that it is a visual sign you are distracted. The message it sends: “you are not the most important thing in this moment, my phone is more important than you”.

Thinking is perhaps the most difficult distraction. When you actively listen, your brain will create thoughts and images. The problem, however, is the fact that your brain can think 4-6 times faster than people can speak. The point being, no matter who you are talking to, if you are active listening, you are ahead in the conversation. Your brain will start to make tangental connections, start to think about something else and suddenly you are distracted.

The problems with thinking fast and being ahead

There are some obvious problems of being ahead in a conversation and it leads to some traits that, I am sure, we are all guilty of at some point:

  • Interrupting: just because you are ahead in the conversation, try not to give into the temptation of side-tracking the conversation or the speaker’s thought process in favour of your own. If you are not prepared to listen to them, they are unlikely to be prepared to listen to you.
  • Talking over the other person: classic ‘one-upmanship’, “my story is better than yours so stop and let me take over”. Be aware of it and don’t do it.
  • Finishing the other person’s sentences: be careful with this one. It can convey excitement, but done too frequently and the person talking no longer feels in control of their own thought process, you quickly alienate yourself as being a bad listener.
  • Too quick to give advice: this is a classic problem, especially for Doctors. In a desire to help, having problem-solving brains and being empathetic, you are keen to give advice. Unfortunately, cutting a person off before they have fully explored a problem with you can lead to you missing valuable insights into possible solutions and the person’s thought process. Approach the problem together, do not bulldoze them with you preconceived or rapidly-conceived solution.


This is a technique taught in GP training and is invaluable. You may not of even noticed it being done, but it is a great technique that keeps you focused and also conveys the message ‘I am listening to you’. You do not add to the information conveyed, but summarise and clarify any details that may not have been clear.

The beauty of summarising is that, with practice, you can ask quite directed questions to lead people to conclusions beneficial to your own vision. A person is less likely to give up on their own line of reasoning, it is much easier to lead their reasoning towards a common point that you both can agree on. For example, “so just for me to clarify, you feel you don’t have time to test and introduce new technology into your processes? Would you still feel that way if I could show you how many of the repetitive tasks that are undertaken could be automated, freeing up valuable time?”

Listening is definitely something that needs to be worked upon. We all get it wrong sometimes, but if you know that you are getting it wrong, or even why you are getting it wrong, you’re already ahead of the game.

Homework - if you are up to the challenge

Next time you are in a group having a discussion, coffee break or meeting, sit back and observe the dynamics. Listen to what is being said. With your new knowledge, you will have a sudden epiphany.

You will witness the ‘talk-talk-talk syndrome’ in all its glory. See if you can spot the person who constantly interrupts the conversation with additional comments, that add little to the conversation, are distracting, bu let the person feel they are contributing.

Watch as individuals talk over each other, desperate to contribute and feel they are part of what is going on. They feel they are communicating, but as we know, active listening is communicating.