Listening requires more than your ears

By: Susan Lucia Annunzio. Category: Newsletters


In my last blog I discussed how “empathy is not optional.” To truly be empathic you must first learn to listen — but not just with your ears. In the Chinese culture, which is older and wiser than ours, listening is accomplished not just with your ears, but also with your eyes and your heart.

My colleague Flinn Dallis, an executive coach at the Center for High Performance, introduced me to the Chinese symbol for listening (see below). It is a combination of five different symbols representing ears, eyes, undivided attention, heart and king.

Of course you must listen with your ears. If done well, listening with your ears allows you to repeat what the other person has said, a necessary leadership skill. Sometimes you are so convinced that you know what the other person is going to say that you fail to hear what he or she actually did say. If you’re part of a couple, you’ve surely experienced this phenomenon, and been completely wrong about what your partner actually said. 

To truly hear, you must also listen with your eyes. This requires you to maintain eye contact with the other person and pay attention to what their body may be telling you. For example, if you are having a serious conversation with someone and his arms are folded across his chest, you might say, “I see that your arms are folded; does that mean anything?” Don’t assume you know what that behavior means. The person might respond with “I feel like you’re attacking me,” or “I’m cold; might we turn up the heat?”

In this era of communication through Zoom or FaceTime, listening with your eyes may be tricky, but it is possible, and even more necessary than when you’re face to face. Eye contact is more difficult when you’re looking at a screen, and so is observing people’s body language. It is almost impossible to do either without giving the conversation your undivided attention – the third section of the Chinese symbol. Paying attention is a sign of respect, and it is especially critical when you’re delivering difficult news, or the other person is in pain.

I’ve made a rule that when I’m on a Zoom or phone call I do not allow other “toys” to be in the room, such as a cell phone, iPad or TV set. Consequently, I can’t check my email, respond to texts, read the news at the bottom of the screen or allow myself to be distracted in other ways by these devices. This allows me to “listen” better by observing cues and really hearing what the other person is saying. If a meeting is important enough to accept, it is important enough to pay close attention.

The most critical part of the Chinese symbol is the notion of listening with your heart, which is another way of saying “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” Try to figure out how it feels to be the person you are conversing with. As a leader, you need to consider the situation your workers are in. Have you thought about what it feels like to work at home without someone to take care of your children? Or what it’s like to be making minimum wage when your spouse is out of work? Or how it feels to not get a promotion that you thought you deserved?

The five parts of the Chinese symbol go in a circle from the upper left-hand corner around to the lower left-hand corner. If you complete this circle by listening with your ears, eyes, undivided attention and heart you will become the “king” — not because you attain power over the other person but because you truly understand what she is saying, and she feels heard. Both parties win.

As a leader in this fast-paced and challenging time, it can be difficult to face each new day, let alone have an uncomfortable conversation and truly listen. Remember to first listen to yourself. What is your body and heart telling you about what you need? Do you need a shoulder to lean on or to take some time away from work and breathe? As the author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek says, “Being a leader isn’t being in charge, it is taking care of those in your charge.” You can’t care for someone else if you haven’t taken care of yourself.