The Art of Listening
Updated: Sep 27
I had the opportunity to listen to Tony Brigmon, Southwest Airlines' former Ambassador of Fun, earlier this week at the 2021 Engaging Texarkana conference. (A special thank you to the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce for hosting an exceptional event and to Texarkana College for allowing me to attend). I did not know Mr. Brigmon, but I have read many leadership books that emphasized the exceptional culture and service provided by Southwest Airlines under the guidance of Mr. Herb Kelleher. Unlike many corporate organizations, Mr. Kelleher really understood the importance of relationship-building with his employees. To get an idea of Herb’s leadership style, he said “Culture is intangible. It’s spiritual. You can’t buy it.” He took the time to listen to his employees and make them feel valued. Mr. Brigmon joyfully reminisced about Mr. Kelleher by telling the audience that Herb made you feel as if you were the only person in the room. When he spoke to employees, he not only asked questions about their personal or work life, but he actually listened. Listening was a skill that Mr. Kelleher mastered, and I believe we can learn so much from him and others.
Although most or all of us know that listening is important, have we really mastered the skill of listening? Stephen Covey said, “Listen first to understand then to be understood.” Are you a Herb Kelleher or a Stephen Covey? Do you give someone your full attention when they are speaking, or are you more like me and sometimes “chase squirrels” mid-conversation because you have the attention span of a goldfish? If you’re more in line with chasing squirrels, that’s okay, However, it is not okay to use that as an excuse and decide you cannot focus on any one long enough to actually listen to them.
If you know me, you know I am a huge advocate for mindfulness (the practice of being aware in the moment.) I am not sure why it took me so long to realize the connection between mindfulness and listening, but they are both skills that require being present in the moment and also require continuous practice. Research suggests humans only process about 2,000 of the 400 billion pieces of information that enter the brain per second. These numbers indicate that we only process a very small portion of what we hear from others (Hall, 2017). The practice of paying attention in the moment is not always easy, and the same is true for being in the moment and listening to someone as they speak. Completely emptying our minds and thoughts so that we are fully in the moment while someone else is speaking can be much more challenging than it sounds.
I recently listened to Simon Sinek share his thoughts on cell phones and relationships. He reminded us that cell phones can destroy relationships because they prevent us from being fully in the present moment and create distraction. He encouraged listeners to put away cell phones any time they should be giving their attention to others: in meetings, at lunch or dinner with others, at home with your family. Even if you are not “on the phone,” he said having the phone in your line of vision is a distraction. I think we can all admit to being a little too attached to our phones or not giving our full attention to others, especially if what they are saying does not interest us or if we are in a rush.
Robyn Garrett of Courageous Leadership teaches the concept of the six-second rule as it relates to listening. To unlock ideas from others, be quiet for six seconds. This amount of time allows others to feel they are able to contribute to the conversation and share ideas. Greek Philosopher, Epictetus, reminded us that we have two ears and only one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. As we enter a new week, I encourage you to try listening twice as much as you speak, being mindful during your conversation with others, and I also challenge you to the six-second rule. Listening is a small investment that will result in large rewards!
Hall, E. (2017). Mindful listening. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conscious-communication/201703/mindful-listening.