Updated: Jun 10, 2019
In our 25 years of consulting, the most common exasperation of front-line workers, first and second level managers, and unhappy customers is the same thing: “I don’t think anyone is really listening.” Workers feel that way about supervisors. Managers feel that way about their hierarchy. Customers feel it about whole organizations, sales people, customer service people, and technical support. In each case, frustration, low trust levels, fruitless conflict, errors, and even loss of business is pretty common. And unnecessary.
In our last two blogs, we have discussed many reasons for why listening does not happen when it should. But perhaps there is another frame that will help us see listening in a different light.
Sure, we all know we should be great listeners. And we all know many reasons that prevent us from achieving that goal. And there are dozens of blogs out there that will give you the three key things to do to become a better listener. Just follow the advice and all will be well. If only it were that easy.
But does your job really depend on great listening? Does the future of another person, their freedom, their fortune, maybe their life depend on it? Would your quest for listening excellence be more intense if you were a prosecutor trying to be certain you had all the necessary evidence to be sure a criminal did not manipulate the system and the truth so he could prey on society again? Would it be a different intensity if you were a defense attorney whose client appeared guilty but who you knew with certainty was innocent? If you were a doctor examining a patient suffering great pain in order to understand symptoms of some malady with which you were not familiar?
We Can Learn from Sherlock
I just finished reading every published story about Sherlock Holmes. His many unusual habits make him fascinating. He used his extraordinary intelligence to save the innocent and to put the bad guys into prison. Yet it was not pure intellect that he used on his cases; a large part of his ability to discover answers to impossibly difficult questions came from his tremendous listening efforts.
His observations often stunned people; even the Scotland Yard experts could look at the same evidence and not see what Holmes had found. He read widely, studied incessantly, and applied his senses in every way possible to identify key evidence and understand the true nature of the crimes in each case. Yet very often, it was his very sensitive listening and probing of witnesses and even criminals that led to the key piece of evidence that turned the case his way.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Holmes stories, routinely expressed his admiration of the great care Holmes took to listen to all possible sides of a situation. People appreciate the effort taken to be sure the listener understands their view, even if they know he must also consider other views. At least they feel a fair effort has been made to capture their way of seeing the situation.
Listening style matters greatly as well. With people Holmes thought to be on the ‘good’ side, he often is tender, cautious, even delicate in probing sensitive issues. His listening manner led people to trust him, to believe he cared about their side of the story, and to believe that their opinion, their life and well being mattered to Holmes. No wonder he often got much more than expected from such witnesses, more than they even consciously knew.
He was the exemplar of listening for clarity. His cases were always complex, causes were muddled, evidence contradictory, at least for a while. Clarity could only come about through very careful listening and asking the right kind of questions that would elicit both better quality and quantity of information. This always took time, and Holmes always made time to be sure he had the clearest picture possible.
Despite his extraordinary history and reputation, Holmes almost always listened humbly to witnesses and even to perpetrators of crimes. His kindness, gentle manner, calm voice, and self-control led people to provide all they could given their resources. Listening humbly paid off hugely.
One last thing, there was a genuine curiosity in Holmes’ style. He did not pretend to know everything. He appeared to want to learn, not instruct, not command others, although the local constabulary often wanted him to take over. Again and again, this natural fascination with the facts and processes of the case set aside any illusion that Holmes wanted fame, wealth, or some aspect of notoriety. His curiosity was expressed in this famous quote that has made it into each of the movies and television shows made about Holmes: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
Perhaps these are some of the reasons that Sherlock Holmes has succeeded in three centuries during which technology has turned the world upside down more than once. His courage and intellect (and are in the never-ending series of shows about him) rested on a foundation of excellent listening. Every case depended on him bringing together all of his skills.
The key listening skills are in bold print above. See if you can find ways to apply them in your daily routine. But start by challenging yourself to see the world like Sherlock – that what you do matters to the lives of others, their well-being, their loyalty, their customer satisfaction. Your willingness and ability to listen may just make all the difference – to them and to you.