Listening, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is “to hear something with thoughtful attention.” Listening is more than receiving audio data. You also need to interpret that data. If you are a parent, I am sure that you have experienced the joy of asking your child if they were listening only to have them rattle off the conversation verbatim without them having a clue of the meaning. Listening requires hearing and interpretation. This formula sounds simple, but is more complex than it appears.  There is a number of requirements for effective listening.

Focus.  The listener must concentrate on the subject.  Focus requires either removing or tuning out distractions. For instance, stop talking.  It is difficult to talk and listen at the same time.  Focus is so important that almost every time management technique, like Pomodoro, has rules to help create focus.  Pomodoro removes distractions by shutting off devices like phones or email programs when you focusing on a task or listening.  This week I am taking an Enterprise Scrum Master class at the Scaled Agile Academy, one of the rules of the class to help ensure participants are listening to the class is that all laptops must be closed, except during breaks.

Interest.  Effective listening requires the listener to want to learn more about what is being communicated.  Without interest, the listener will find it difficult to focus on the subject.  For example, I was listening to a webinar on a subject I was keenly interested in. The presenter had a few technical difficulties but due to my interest in the topic, I was able to look past the problems and focus on listening to the content.  Interest also helps to generate empathydefined as understanding what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference, which helps connect the listener to what is being communicated.

Awareness. Humans communicate on many levels.  Effective listening requires an awareness and interpretation of all communication channels.  For example, a listener needs to interpret both the words and the tone. A statement made using a sarcastic tone has a different meaning than the same statement made using an empathetic tone. Body language can also be another channel of information that augments the words and tone, which is one of the reasons face-to-face communication is much more effective than text messaging (even if we are using emoji).    

Context. What is going on around the communication can affect the meaning. For example, the meaning of the immortal phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech that “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself” is directly linked to the state of the world in 1933. Context, like body language, provides another channel of information that the listener needs to interpret. Culture is a specific form of context that is often very important in teams with ethnically and culturally diverse members.  For example, the meaning of a head nod is often different in different cultures.  It took me awhile to understand that a head nod might mean agreement in one culture, understanding in another or no for some Greek friends. 

Listening is a core competency in order to succeed.  The level of criticality increases exponentially if you work in a team-based organization. Once upon a time, I had been working on a severe production problem with a team of developers.  All of us had been awake and on-site for just a bit over 48 hours.  As the head of testing and quality at the location, I had just approved the move to production when one of my colleagues started talking (he was also gesticulating in an animated fashion).  I could see his mouth move, I could hear the sounds, I knew he was excited yet I was incapable of understanding.  I was not able to focus; I was so tired that I was not interested.  I was hearing, but not listening.

Other topics to be covered in the listening arc include: