The Art Of Listening

The Art Of Listening

Listening is one business skill where seeming passivity bests aggressiveness.

We’re no longer in hockey season, but I fondly remember a fun night from that time of year. I was watching the Wild in a solid game against the Edmonton Oilers at the X. Early in the game, Minnesota took a comfortable lead, so my three friends and I relaxed into conversation. The topic of listening came up as I shared my pending deadline for this month’s column.

Public relations guy Chris Duffy, of St. Paul-based Goff Public, instantly said, “There’s a reason we have one mouth and two ears.” I could just visualize Chris’ pithy line, take it in and end the analysis. But I won’t. But the truth of this statement seems evident. You can picture Eve in the Garden of Eden not really listening to advice about the fruit of a certain tree. In modern times, we have lots of evidence that members of the United States Congress don’t listen to one another.

Listening starts as a habit

Aristotle said, “Excellence is not an act. It is a habit.” When we make listening a habit in our day-to-day lives, we create our own success. Active listening is as important to powerful communication as strong vocal behavior or a clear message. So why do many people have trouble listening?

I turned to some pros who need to listen or they wouldn’t be in business. Dan Simon is a mediator at Twin Cities Mediation. “In the recent past, there’s been a lot of emphasis on ‘active listening,’ ” he says. “But more important than active listening, which is designed to demonstrate that you’re listening, is simply to actually listen and not try to prove that you are.” Simon recommends we listen without an agenda.

You only become a powerful communicator by communicating. The next logical conclusion is you can only become a great listener by actually listening. In her book, The Ten-Minute Leadership Challenge, Margaret Smith challenges us to “remember three important details from every conversation you have this week and write them down.” A couple hours later, try to remember them. Just as I remind people that the only way they’ll increase their communication acumen is to practice, and that repetition is the only way to gain expertise, Smith’s advice is right on if you want to solidify great listening skills.

Tom Esch is a former priest and a facilitator/coach at Minneapolis-based Creating Resolution. To him, genuine listening is a fine art: “When you are in the presence of someone who truly pays full attention to you and is 100 percent present in the moment, it is a potent experience.” He recognizes that technology adds a lot of distractions today but adds, “Those spacious, grounded souls who listen to us as if we are the only person on Earth are real gifts. They are smart businesspeople, because they can build strong relationships relatively quickly.”

Is anyone keeping score?

When building relationships by boosting listening skills, remember that authenticity is key. Asking yourself a few questions about the people you need or want to listen to is also important.

Esch suggests you “listen with awareness of the positional power dynamics present in the conversation.” Here’s what he means: Is everyone in the conversation equal in status? Is there a generational difference? I call this gathering data as you do audience analysis. “The ones who pay most attention to these invisible dynamics are in a position to listen in a manner that builds relationships, prevents conflict and positively impacts the bottom line,” he says.

Ultimately, isn’t that what we’re trying to do in all business communication—trying to grow the brands of our organizations and ourselves? We are building personal and business reputations. That reputation precedes us in all that we do.

So back to that game at the X. A couple of us left near the end of the second period because of other commitments—and the Wild had a comfortable 3-1 lead. Only the next day did I learn we lost 4-3. Unfortunately, my hometown team didn’t close what it started that night. But you can always stand out with anything you choose to do by using all your communication skills with intention.

Roshini Rajkumar is a communication coach, host of News & Views on WCCO Radio, and author of Communicate That! For additional communication tips, visit