The Power of Listening

I once worked at a company with a pretty high wall of mistrust between the office and warehouse staff. But I was one of the few office staff who had a degree of goodwill on both sides of the divide. A big part of the reason for that was a small task I was assigned early on: writing the company newsletter. Every issue included a profile of a staff member, which meant I had to interview a number of warehouse workers.

As humans, we have a strong desire to be heard and understood. It’s ironic because it drives us to spend a lot of time and energy trying to express ourselves, looking for someone who listens and understands.

But while we’re all working hard to be heard, who’s listening?

That’s what makes listening such a powerful activity; it fills that need and it’s relatively rare. When we listen to people – really listen, as opposed to just waiting our turn to speak – it does something. It makes them like us more. It makes them trust us more. It builds a bond.

Of course, it may also make us, as listeners, like and trust the speaker more, as we gain information and insight about them. But that’s the superficial benefit. Regardless of the actual information exchanged, I believe a huge benefit of one person listening to another is how it builds their connection.

Getting People To Listen

As leaders, how can we take advantage of this to build our teams, our networks, and our communities? The obvious answer is to get them to listen to one another more, but how do we do that? Even those of us who know perfectly well that we should listen more than we speak have a hard time actually doing it (and by ‘we’, I mean me).

One way is to build listening into some task. My experience with the newsletter is a perfect example. I didn’t know that I was building relationships that would serve me well for years as I asked these steel booted guys about their typical day. But I didn’t have to. The structure of the task required me to report what they said to me in an accurate and respectful way, so I did. And the bond-building happened without my noticing it.

What, exactly, the task looks like will depend on the specifics of the team or organization, but the key is to require someone to learn about what’s going on with someone else and be accountable for understanding it well enough to report on it.

In a workshop or exercise setting, the opportunities for building an activity around this concept are nearly endless. Such a rich area to mine, and you don’t even have to get into any overly sensitive or heavy subject matter. As long as it involves participants sharing and listening, with some accountability built in so the listener is motivated to really listen, you’re golden!

Getting people to listen to each other is not guaranteed to solve all interpersonal problems, or magically make people best friends, but it can certainly grease the wheels of any relationship and set it up to be healthier and more productive going forward.