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Are You Listening with Confidence or Listening with Arrogance?

Listening is one of the most important traits of a good manager. Good managers spend most of their time listening: listening to their employees describe the problems they’ve encountered, listening to what their bosses tell them to do, listening to what customers have to say about products and services.

Beginning managers listen
It’s easy to listen when you’re early in your career. After all, you don’t know very much, and the people around you can provide you with useful information. You learn about how things have always been done, and if you push a little, you’ll even learn why. Dig a little deeper, and you can learn whether the reasons are still valid.

You’ll learn about your customers, what they like, what they don’t like, how their lives can be made better through use of your products and services, and how your products and services sometimes make them miserable. You’ll learn that customers enjoy being listened to, and you’ll learn that very few companies listen enough.

You’ll learn about your employees, who they are when they’re away from the office, what they want out of life, what they enjoy and what they worry about at night. You’ll learn that they’re individuals — not just robots who take direction — and that they respond to different kinds of motivation depending on their nature.

You’ll learn that your bosses are individuals too. They have doubts and fears just like you do, and they’re often driven more by individual aspirations than by the perceived good of the company.

Higher managers tend to stop listening
As you move higher in the management ranks, you start filtering what you hear based on your experience. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s natural for your brain to apply pattern recognition to the new information you receive. It’s the brain’s way of making sense of all of the increasing amount of data. When you hear something the first time, you listen carefully. But by the 100th repetition of the same information, you tend to filter it out. You zone out during the repetition and try to skip to the bottom line.

Experienced managers think they’ve heard it all before. They listen to a message, categorize it based on their experience, and apply the standard response that they’ve developed for this particular message. That can be good up to a point, but you have to be very careful.

Good managers listen with confidence
Listening with confidence means that you apply all of your knowledge and experience, but that you still listen very carefully and attentively. You listen to the message, but also to the nuance. You listen to the words, but also to the emotion. You listen to the meaning, but also to the innuendo and hidden subtext. You listen to what’s familiar, but you carefully explore subtle shadings that make this telling of the message slightly different. And you always remember that even though you’ve heard this message (or a similar one) a hundred times, it’s probably the first time that this particular speaker has given the message to you. It may seem boring to you, but it’s an emotional event for the speaker. And every version of a message is slightly different depending on the situation and the speaker.

Bad managers listen with arrogance
Listening with arrogance is hardly listening at all. It’s hearing what someone says, but rapidly discarding the words, and then pigeonholing the event based on prior experience. It’s listening while doing something else — maybe checking email or looking out the window. It’s cutting off the speaker in mid-sentence, not allowing the speaker to finish. It’s listening passively — not asking questions to clarify or get a better understanding of intent. It’s being impatient and showing that impatience to the speaker. It’s knowing the answers without asking the questions. It’s applying your experience in a way that only perpetuates the past, instead of learning that things can indeed change.

As a speaker, how do you tell the difference?
How can you tell if someone is listening to you with confidence or listening with arrogance? Good listeners pay attention. They aren’t distracted — they’re focused on you and your message. They try to truly understand you, whether or not they agree. They ask questions to clarify areas of your message that are unclear or ambiguous. They probe for intent, and push for clarity. They ask you for your opinion on how to resolve any problem you describe. They ask for pros and cons of various approaches. They seem interested in you and in what you have to say. You leave the conversation feeling good about yourself and about the communication.

Arrogance sneaks up on you
I don’t know of any manager who chooses to be arrogant. It’s the kind of thing that sneaks up on you. There’s a progression from timidity to confidence that continues into arrogance if you don’t keep your ego in check. But arrogance is one of the worst traits a manager can have, because arrogant managers resist change. They build their organizations to work a certain way and then use their arrogance to set their beliefs and their processes in concrete. Arrogance leads to bureaucracy, and bureaucracy leads to failure in a world that’s rapidly changing.

Are YOU an arrogant listener?
If you see yourself in any of these descriptions of arrogant listening, then it’s not too late, since a truly arrogant listener probably wouldn’t have read this far in the article. Take steps to return to confident listening, and you’ll get a better organization with better morale.  And you’ll probably find that you’ll enjoy your job a lot more too.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • leon Noone June 2, 2011, 1:08 am

    G’Day Harwell,
    Interesting post: I’ve written lots about listening. But your confidence/arrogance viewpoint provides an interesting nuance.

    I happen to believe that face to face communication is the core management skill. I also preach that words are merely vehicles for meaning. And communication of any form in the workplace should be all about meaning.

    Thanks for adding to my perspective.

    Make sure you have fun.


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