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Two Ears, One Mouth

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

By Chuck Cusumano and Sarah Mill


A little over a year ago, we posted a blog on listening. It is such a critical skill that we wanted to revisit the topic again.

It is no secret that communication is an essential leadership skill. And in our experience, we would say that effective communication is one of the top 3 most important leadership and life skills. Listen up! Here is the catch – it is really the skill of listening that makes for a truly effective communicator, not always having something to say. It is the reason that our grandparents would say, “You were born with 2 ears and 1 mouth, keep it in those proportions."

Considering the vast digital landscape, we live in today, communication has never been easier… on the surface. Sure, we are constantly plugged in, but does it really mean we are constantly connected? Yes, we can answer emails from the palm of our hand anytime, anywhere. We have the ability to collaborate with people all over the world without even leaving our office or, as 2020 has taught us, our home. We might be constantly plugged in, but does that mean we are effectively communicating?

Not at all!

Think about this: it is a lot easier to have an opinion or an idea than to listen to the opinion or idea of another. When someone asks for help, we are so eager to share the “secret to our success” that we routinely forget to truly listen to what the person is really asking or needs. We are so quick to want to provide the instant gratification of an answer that we forget the power of the process. The power lies in listening.

Effective communication boils down to listening for the purpose of understanding, not replying. The moment we begin formulating a response in our minds, our attention strays from what the other person is trying to communicate. As soon as our focus shifts away from the speaker and onto our premature response, we risk building a barrier to our understanding of their needs.

Consider a time where someone sought your advice. Did you have an answer ready before they even finished explaining their dilemma? We should remember that the foundation of serving others lies in the process, not the result. It is about helping others reach their goals. It is being a part of their journey toward success that demonstrates true servant leadership.

If our goal is to help others and coach them toward success, we need to first understand them. Who are they? What are their concerns? What are their goals? How are they wired to receive our words? How can we truly help?

Whether your goal is to help an individual, lead a team, or sell a product or service, your best bet is to listen to the needs of others, and be active and intentional when doing so. Being an active listener takes consistent practice and conscious effort but worry not! There are steps you can take to become a more active listener and effective communicator.

1. Be present. There is nothing worse than trying to talk to someone when you catch them glimpsing at their phone or computer screen. Whether someone is giving you feedback, asking for advice, or simply telling you a story, giving them all of your attention helps to establish a connection and build trust. It is also the basis for having charisma. Who does not what to be more charismatic?

2. Refrain from making judgments and jumping to conclusions. We all have our opinions, but it is important to have an open mind so you can fully take in what the other person is saying before you respond with feedback. The moment you let your judgments take over, your ability to listen will be tainted by any assumptions you have made.

3. Avoid interjections. Suppress the desire to jump into the conversation and provide your opinion before the other person is done talking. It is important to understand the full picture before you give your two cents. Beside the point that most people consider it just rude to cut someone off in mid-sentence. Saying, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but….” is just plain interrupting!

4. Be aware of your body language. You do not have to interrupt the speaker to let them know you are paying attention. Instead, you can provide non-verbal cues like strong eye contact to show you are focused and a nod to show you are following along. You can also add, “yes, sure thing, got it”, and so on to stay in tune with the speaker but not interrupt.

5. Ask clarifying questions as needed. To avoid providing feedback that is self-centered, consider asking clarifying questions that are open-ended, allowing the other person to take part in a dialogue that better helps you understand their needs. Questions like “what do you mean by that?” or “why do you feel that way?” foster deeper conversation and cultivates more organic results. A great default response is, “tell me more” or “could you explain that more to me, I really want to understand”.

If there are no questions to be asked, paraphrase what was said to ensure your understanding is in line with the speaker’s intention. We call this technique- Mirroring.

6. Provide appropriate feedback. The best feedback you can give is that which serves the other person. Rather than attempting to provide a one-size-fits-all solution, strive to provide personalized responses.

It all boils down to the simple fact that to better help others we must first understand them. Effective communication is at the heart of leadership and serving others, and to better communicate, we must listen and listen well. Remember, just because we live during a time of wide-spread and instantaneous connection does not mean that effective communication is taking place.

The bottom line? We must learn to listen. Only then will we be able to listen to learn! So, remember - you have two ears and one mouth there is a reason for that RATIO!

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

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