Franco Harris

I was in Pittsburgh on December 23, 1972.  This is the day and place the term “Immaculate Reception” was given to one of the most famous plays in football history.  It was a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.  The Steelers were trailing in the last 30 seconds of the game.  Terry Bradshaw passed to a player.  The ball was deflected.  As the ball was falling to the ground, fullback, Franco Harris scooped it up centimeters from the turf and ran for the winning touchdown.  It became the NFL’s choice as the greatest play of all time.

The point?  Never underestimate the power of a great receiver.  This applies to the skill of listening. Great listeners are great receivers.  It inspires and engages others.

“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”  —George Bernard Shaw

We spend around 80% of our waking hours in some form of communication.  About half of that time, 40%, is spent listening.  If we aren’t listening, we aren’t learning.

We all have the ability to be skilled listeners.  Unfortunately, too many assume that it’s the other person’s responsibility to ensure that communication is a success.  The majority of communication training is in the arena of speaking.   And this leaves an enormous amount of understanding and communication untapped.

Ineffective listening is the cause of much trouble, misunderstanding, poor decisions, trust erosion, and relationship trauma.  In organizations it can lead to lost time, money, productivity, opportunities, and on occasion, lost lives.  Learning to listen skillfully is no small matter.

The good news is that listening is a skill that can be learned.  Here are 4 things to keep in mind in becoming a great receiver. 

1.    Listen first.  Do this before you speak.  This includes not cutting off a person in midsentence or mid-thought.  Let’s call it the interruption grunt.  When you feel that urge, let it be a reminder for you to be patient.  You will soon discover your point will be stronger by “pausing” rather than “pouncing.”  Listen to understand, not to respond (Stephen Covey).

2.    Listen generously.  Stingy listening is our default mode, especially when emotions are charged.  This happens when we are looking for agreement or with intent “to win.”  The drift is about who’s right.  Generous listening looks for possibilities with a curiosity that leads to discovery.  Generous listening is empathetic listening.  It listens for the contribution of others and is willing to be influenced.  Setting preconceived assumptions and emotional filters aside increases the ability to listen.  On teams and in families this builds trust.

3.    Listen dimensionally.  There are 3 dimensions of listening.

*SURFACE LISTENING – You listen to the actual words, taking them at face value.  It’s surface because it only gets you so far. It’s like signing for a UPS package without going deeper to see what’s inside.

*ISSUES-BASED LISTENING – You hear the words and cut through the clutter to see what really matters.  What is the underlying message?  What are the implications of what is being said?  Open-ended questions help mine this out – What do you mean by that?  Why do you think that is?  Don’t assume everything is immediately obvious.  Ask and you shall receive.

*EMOTIONS-BASED LISTENING – This level gets to the real emotion and motivation behind the issue.  It sounds like what he/she/I said has upset you. When the other person feels you are acknowledging the core issue or hot button, then your message is much more receptive and engaging.

4.  Listen courageously.  It takes courage to speak, but it also takes courage to listen.    Speakers have control over what they say.  Listeners don’t have control over what they hear.  Quarterbacks have control when and where they throw the football.  Receivers don’t have that advantage.  They have to make the reception however it is delivered and wherever it lands.  Listeners are good receivers – even if the information arouses fear or insecurity – even if it makes them feel defensive – even if it’s delivered awkwardly or in a jerky or hostile fashion – they receive it thoughtfully and in a non-anxious state of mind.  That takes courage. 

Be intentional about practicing these skills in your conversations everyday – at work, at home, with your family and friends.  Do it on the phone and online.  You will discover that hearing transforms into listening.  In doing so you are becoming a great receiver and a Most Valued Player. 

Here are the questions I ask myself.  Am I growing in my listening skills? Am I asking more questions than making comments?  Am I showing I care about the answers – and thus the answerer?

What are your thoughts?

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14 Responses
  1. Mick

    Jim. Being the only NFL ref to work consecutive Super Bowls, I’m sure you remember it well. And thanks for promoting authentic leadership.

  2. Really enjoyed this post Mick, thank you. Giving this topic and skill focus is a rarity. It’s easy to assume we have these skills without practice. I was involved in a session recently when a speaker challenged that we insist on qualifications for those in charge of our finances but we are happy to let anyone loose on poeple (our supposedly most valuable assets) without the same value on the skills required. Of course this may be an exaggeration or an extreme and I’m not suggesting everyone has to achieve a qualification but we do need to know that poeple have listening and other high level “people” or comms skills to be great leaders.

  3. Mick Ukleja

    Great point Helena. Being a “certified” listener is not a bad idea! And there are many situations where good listening skills not only saves, but also increases “hard” cash, not to mention lives!

  4. Dan Gabree

    Thanks, Mick. Great to always remember that conversation takes two. Several good points in this that make it worth reading more than once.

  5. Mick

    Thanks Dan. Reading an article more than once is a discipline I practice when I want to take something deeper.

  6. erick fischer

    I have read a couple of your articles ,so impressed I copied some paragraphs to reflect on . GREAT JOB.

  7. Mick Ukleja

    Thanks Erick. This is a pretty important skill, both personally and professionally. I appreciate your interest!

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