Listening to People Around You

As a people leader, I often teach the principle of active listening. It’s been my experience that most people don’t know how and aren’t even aware that this might be an area for growth. My observations have led me to conclude that there are three, broad categories of people who don’t practice active listening. (As with any categorization, you run the risk of stereotyping or being reductionist; the categories are meant as general guidelines and not as labels or triggers.)

The first is what I call “the promoter.” They are so focused on their own world and their own problems that they’re already thinking about the next thing they’re going to say while you’re still conveying information. What you say doesn’t really matter; the only thing that matters is what they are trying to say. In the work environment, they step on others ideas and block the healthy exchange of ideas. In a personal sphere, they are the ones that always have a cooler, better story than the one someone just told. Or, failing that, they will change the subject to something that interests them or showcases their talents.

The second category is “the busy bee.”  Everyone knows this person. They are too busy to help; too busy for family; too busy for loved ones. They run around in a constant state of stress and disorganization. No one can have an emergency except for them, and if someone tries to intervene or calm them down, they are met with sarcasm, mockery, anger, or withdrawal. In the business, these people make others feel guilty for not contributing, or they make others feel inadequate because they can never measure up to the busy bee’s standards. On the personal side, these people leave neglected friends, family, and loved ones behind as they seek to feel useful through constant activity.

The last category is “the teenager.” People in this category are too cool to listen; they may think they know it all, or they may feign disinterest because they think it helps them maintain control. Another way people in this category manifest their behavior is through the criticism of solutions and situations without offering any alternatives (a typical teen-aged indulgence). Their attitudes are immature at best and divisive at the worst. In the business, you will see people in this category slouch during meetings and exhibit closed body language. They’ll cross arms, frown, and stare off into space. If you’re not running a meeting with ground rules, they may stare at their phone or whisper to their neighbors. Outside of work, this personality comes across as sullen, entitled, or unwilling to accept criticism.

One of the benefits of active listening is that people tell you exactly who they are with their actions. Once you learn to really listen to the words, you can also start to really listen to actions. You can begin to compare them to the way people act. Where are the inconsistencies? Why do the inconsistencies exist? The gap between word and action is framed by intent. This is where people tell you who they really are.

Do you have a subordinate who comes across as angry and frustrated, but who also shows up early, stays late, and never misses a deadline? What does that tell you about their true self? Do you have someone in your life who professes love and commitment, and yet buries themselves in work and other people? What does that tell you about what they’re really committed to?

Actions speak much louder than words, but it’s rare for people to listen to either. By examining closely not just the things someone says, but also their actions, you can begin to form a picture of what they find valuable in their lives. Understanding that gives you insight into their personality. From a professional standpoint, this allows you as a people leader to put people in places that fulfill them and provide opportunities for success. On a personal level, it allows you to honestly look at the relationships in your life and determine (by someone’s actions) what they think and feel.