Inside Perspective: Listen

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

“We are given two ears, but only one mouth. This is because God knew that listening was twice as hard as talking.”



Lawyers are taught to listen.  Good lawyers actually do listen.  But many of us are too busy thinking about what we are going to say next to actually listen carefully to what our partner in conversation is saying and the meaning behind the words.  Lawyers spend countless hours honing their writing and verbal skills.  However, being an excellent lawyer and a great business leader require exceptional listening skills.  People admire other people who listen to them, more so than the big talker in the room who believes that what he has to say is more important than what anyone else can possibly add to the conversation (or at least he acts this way).  Becoming a good listener will help you advance your career.  So what does it take to be a good listener?

Concentrate.  Good listening requires the listener to put aside all distractions and focus on the language, words and non-verbal cues the speaker is giving to you.  Focus on the words, the ideas and the feelings the speaker is expressing. Concentrate on the main ideas and points, try not to be distracted by off topic meanderings.

Pay attention.  Pay attention to the speaker, let her know that you are listening by acting like a listener.  All the while that you are assessing her communication with you (words, interpreting voice inflection and modulation, reading body language and facial expressions) she is doing the same.  She is looking at you trying to determine if what she is saying resonates with you, if you understand it, if the words “touch” your emotions or break through to your intellect.  Let her know that you are listening by maintaining eye contact, giving non-verbal cues such as nodding or leaning forward, look her in the eyes and let her feel that you “hear and you understand” what she is saying to you.

Maintain a receptive body posture – do not cross arms and legs or sit turned away from the speaker.  Rather, sit with arms gently to your side or slightly folded hands on your lap.  Do not play with your personal communication device – if necessary, turn it off in front of the speaker, sending a message that nothing is more important than what she has to say to you right now.

Be open.  Maybe, just maybe, the speaker will have something to say to you that you don’t already know.  If you have an attitude of objective receptiveness, she might convince you of a different and better way of thinking about a particular topic or a novel (to you anyway) means to approach a problem.  As lawyers, this can prove exceptionally difficult because we are often expected to have all the answers.  So we start to act as if we do.  It is amazing what we can learn when we accept that we do not have the answer for every problem and then listen carefully with an open mind to those who might have a deeper knowledge on a particular subject.

Restate the message the speaker gives you.  In this manner, you show that you are listening very carefully and that you have a desire to know exactly what she is trying to communicate to you.  Many times repeating the message in your own words gives rise to clarification or further development of the communication such that both parties benefit from a deeper dive into the subject matter.  Also, ask questions.  If you do not understand a point, or require further refinement, ask for clarification.

Do not interrupt.  You may think you can say it better than the speaker, but interrupting sends a clear unequivocal message that you believe what you have to say is much more important, relevant or insightful than what the speaker is saying.  Otherwise, why would you need to put an end to their message to get your own thoughts verbalized?

Put yourself in the speaker’s position so that you really have a better perspective as to where she is coming from.  Context is extremely important in understanding a person’s message and the “why” behind the need for its expression.

Remember, a conversation takes at least two people – a speaker and a listener.  Each party flips from one to the other in an instant.  For productive, meaningful conversations to take place, we cannot be thinking only about what we are going to say next.  We must exercise good listening skills to fully engage and learn the most we can from the conversation and hopefully, advance the cause of both the listener and the speaker.

“If you love to listen you will gain knowledge, and if you pay attention you will become wise.” 

Sirach 6:33




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