10 Sept 2007


My mother was a stickler for manners when we were growing up. Remembering to say “please” and “thank-you” was imperative, as was correct use of the fork when eating peas…”It’s not a shovel” was the catch-cry when we were young(er).

Consequently, my mother would be mortified to discover that I was recently brought up short for interrupting during a conversation. It was during a meeting. There were only two of us. I was pointedly asked to “let me finish” and then afterwards informed that it was important not to interrupt. This brash antipodean had to admit they were dead right.

Common courtesy aside, I was also reminded that listening is a key communication skill. We tend to focus on other types of communication skills – such as being an articulate presenter, or employing good body language – and overlook the fundamentals.

I’m not sure why. Our grandparents’ generation may lament the decline in social standards. Others might recall an era when ‘listening politiely’ was de-rigeur. There are also cultural factors at play – some organizations value creative, energetic, intense and even combatative work cultures – i.e. who ever screams loudest wins. In turn, saying nothing can be interpreted as contributing nothing – compelling people to words.

And even if we can keep our mouths - or egos - in check, the focus then becomes hearing, not listening. And there is a distinction between the two. Good listening (often referred to as active or empathic listening), involves more than the ‘boring relative’ approach – i.e. staying schtum and nodding from time to time to feign interest.

Taking the time to fully delve into what someone shares with you in a conversation might not be everyone’s cup of tea – particularly in the hub hub of daily life. But pick one conversation today to delve into. Whether you are at home or the office, take a moment to clarify what’s being said and really focus on understanding the speaker. The results might surprise you. Steven Covey (author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) writes about his experience as a parent employing empathic listening with his child and the profound impact it had on both them.

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