Listening Versus Hearing: How It Impacts Conversations

Listening versus hearingListening and hearing are not the same, but most people use the words interchangeably. I can’t tell you how often I will say to my husband, ‘you aren’t listening to me’ (anyone reading this article have the same problem?) and he’ll say yes and can repeat verbatim what I just said. In his mind he was listening, to me he simply heard me. What’s the difference? More importantly how does knowing the difference impact the conversation?

Hearing is an auditory function. Unless you have a hearing impairment, every one of us hears. Stop for a minute while you are reading this and spend a moment identifying what you hear. I’m sitting in my home office right now. I can hear the birds outside, the trucks driving down the street, the fan on my laptop, my dog sighing under my desk as she makes herself comfortable, my chair squeaking every time I move, and many other sounds.

Listening is when you pay attention to what you are hearing. During conversations, listening is critical for ensuring the communication is effective. In a previous article I wrote, The Lost Art of Listening, I outline what one listens for so the communication is effective. Listening is so much more than hearing the words and, unless you are listening, not simply hearing, you will miss clues that are vital for successful communication.

Here are a few examples to demonstrate my point:

  1. Conversation between two managers: One of my clients was talking about hiring someone for business development. She mentioned to the CEO her thinking and how she had identified a couple of possible candidates. He said ‘ok’. Next thing he knows she is out interviewing these people and coming to him ready to make an offer. His ‘ok’ only meant he heard her, she assumed it meant go. What went wrong?
  2. Manager talks about an upcoming project: During a meeting, a manager mentioned an upcoming project. One of the team members begins working on the project and goes to the manager with his ideas. The manager is surprised because in his mind he was simply sharing information, not indicating he was ready to begin work on it.
  3. Employee comes to your office to complain: They share a concern they have about workload or something else. You rush in to fix the problem offering to take some of the work off their plate and reassign. They walk out frustrated because all they wanted was to have someone hear their concern, not necessarily find a solution.
  4. Colleague discusses their concern about another manager: A colleague comes to your office to express their concern about another manager (or maybe your joint manager). They say, “I’m so angry about…”. You listen and empathize and completely miss the word angry, which is a big emotional word that is very telling.
  5. A customer calls screaming about a delay in delivery: They are truly upset about the delay and spewing adjectives right and left. Your immediate reaction is to explain why the delay happened (somehow believing if they understood they would be less upset). You hear their words, maybe even their frustration but you missed everything that would tell you how to successfully handle this conversation.

When you focus on hearing the words, instead of what’s beneath the words or in addition to the words (i.e., emotions), how you respond will be different and the conversation changes. Using the above example of the upset customer, focusing on offering explanation about WHY there is a delay is meaningless, they couldn’t care less. Your problem has now become their problem yet they have no way to solve it and have lost control. What if the delay causes them to lose a customer or a project to get way behind or something else that for them is catastrophic? Can you see how explaining why the delay occurred is meaningless to them? Or even offering them a discount or something else not only doesn’t solve their dilemma it only exacerbates their frustration because they ‘feel’ that you aren’t listening to them.

Now let’s take that same example and change it from ‘hearing the customer’ to ‘listening to the customer’. Customer calls mad as hell about the delay. You let them vent for a few minutes and then ask a question. Examples: “Mr. Customer, I clearly understand how upset you are, what can I do to make this situation better?” or “Mr. Customer, I know you are upset, can you tell me how this delay is impacting you so I can determine what options we might have?” What just happened? The customer felt heard AND understood, not only heard. He now recognizes that you understand he has a problem that your company caused and you want to understand the impact to him in order to determine if there is a workable solution. Can you see how powerful this shift is and the impact on the conversation?

In my opinion one of the most important needs we all have as human beings is to feel understood, and understanding comes from deep listening. What if instead of trying to solve your employee’s problem you spent time listening, and then asking what they wanted from you? Maybe what they want is simply to whine and share and can then go off and feel satisfied. What if you took the time to ‘feel’ the words they were using or the emotional energy they were putting out, how would it change the next words you say? I’m betting it would change them significantly.

Imaging your teenager walking away from a conversation with you thinking ‘my parents really listened to me’ instead of ‘they always tell me what to do like I don’t know how and never listen to me’. Every single relationship, whether it’s personal or professional, changes profoundly when the other person feels understood. Listening turns into understanding. Feeling understood creates a space where that person can now relax and feel safe, and that builds relationships at a deep level.

We are such busy people, all of us and most of the time. Because we are busy, and often thinking about what we need to do or handle next, our tendency is to try to get the other person to hurry up and finish whatever they are saying. I promise you that your relationship will irrevocably be changed in a positive way when you take the time to listen to understand, not simply focus on hearing. Try it and let me know what you discover.

Frustrated with having the same conversations over and over again without any change? Change the Business of Business Through Communication provides tips and tools you can use immediately.

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