Nobody seems to listen anymore. Instead, talk abounds in our society. Day and night we are inundated with voices urging us to buy, to vote, to act, to change. From the workplace to our private lives, we're surrounded by people with something to say. By contrast, listening is an undervalued activity, so basic it goes virtually unrecognized. Listening makes no noise, seems intangible, and leaves little evidence, while talk is loud and can be documented.
Although listening is a fundamental skill, we're not taught how to do it. We always see "important" people talk while "unimportant" people listen. Few schools or how-to books impart listening skills. There are debating clubs and championships for orators; there are no awards for excellent listeners.
But listening has real effects. We can make or break someone by the way we listen. Lack of listening can cause human damage and efficiency losses. Take business, for example. I frequently see situations where human initiative is crushed, performance breaks down, people are reduced to objects, mergers go awry, companies go bankrupt - often because of poor communication and listening skills.
The problem is no secret. In a recent survey by the Coleman Consulting Group involving 22,000 shift workers in varied American industries, 70 percent revealed that there is little communication with plant and company management; 59 percent said they believe their company doesn't really care about them - another way of saying nobody listens.
On the other hand, most of us have experienced being heard completely, being understood by another - the rare moment when our words were brilliant, meaning something to someone.
"Few motives in human experience are as powerful as the yearning to be understood," argues Michael P. Nichols, author of "The Lost Art of Listening."
"Being listened to means that we are taken seriously, that our ideas and feelings are known and, ultimately, that what we have to say matters," he says.
Not everybody is deaf to the importance of listening. Many businesses recognize that listening is not passive but an active mode of communication.
After IBM-Canada's stock fell and 5,000 of its 13,000 workers were laid off in the early 1990s, the company realized the need to listen to its customers; it made customer relationship management a top priority. IBM accomplished a major turnaround: Its work force is back at over 13,000.
Abbott Laboratories' sales techniques turned off customers until the company implemented a program to improve employee listening skills. As a result, 200 problem accounts have improved since 1995, resulting in $9 million of additional sales.
Neil Kadisha, CEO of HPM, an Ohio manufacturer, explains his policy: "No one has a thing to fear about coming to me and lodging a complaint or making a suggestion. In all of my companies, janitors to the highest level of management can come to me.... We manage by respect, not by fear. We respect our employees' opinions and suggestions. They have the right to get upset and angry, and they have the right to be heard."
These companies, and others, are serious about the need to listen. They've incorporated listening into business practices, which often significantly improves performance. Still, most have a mechanistic, black-and-white understanding of listening, treating it like a light switch to turn on and off, and failing to see listening as the rich body of distinctions it can be.
Much like leadership, creativity, strategy, and other business skills, listening is a complex art that takes sustained effort to develop, but that will yield rich, surprising results for those who dare make it a life-long quest.
The Chinese character for the word "listening" can also mean eyes, ears, you, undivided attention, or love. The practice of listening consistent with this rich set of meanings may be one of the most important leverage points in shaping our future. If listening were a standard discipline taught and tested in schools and other institutions, major social issues and costs might be avoided - not only in business, but also in politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and personal relationships. In other words, amazing things can happen if we are still and listen for a change.
* Thomas D. Zweifel, CEO of the Swiss Consulting Group, in New York, is a coach and lecturer on leadership. He is author of the forthcoming 'The Leadership Manual.'