The first major news story of 2006 was that thirteen
West Virginia coal miners were trapped two miles
underground in Sago mine. Millions were glued to their
TV’s throughout the night of January 3 awaiting word
of what was happening down below, in the
suffocating blackness that few of us can even
Around midnight, celebration erupted as it was
reported that twelve miners had been found alive.
Three hours later, the joy gave way to crushing
heartbreak when it was announced that the news
was wrong. In fact, only one miner, twenty-six year-
old Randal L McCloy, Jr. was the solitary miner who
would emerge alive.
What happened? How could they get it so wrong?
Well, for one, the impediments to hearing, and to
listening, were formidable. Oxygen masks, garbled
radio transmissions, helicopters, other engines, and
the crowd all made it hard to hear, let alone listen.
But perhaps nothing contributed to the accidental,
though critical inaccuracy more than the collective
psyche of those on the ground. They desperately
wanted to hear of survival. Perhaps they simply heard
what they wanted – needed so badly – to hear.
Listening. On its surface, it seems so simple, so
natural. We simply let the sound come into our ears,
we record, for a brief moment, what comes in, and
then we respond. Or not.
For something that seems so simple, so natural, we
sure do seem to have a lot of trouble getting it right.
Our work tells us over and over that people simply
reserve their best effort for people they believe care
about them as human beings. And one of the most
convincing ways to let someone know you care, is to
listen. Really listen.
While both the words “hear” and “listen” are verbs,
the former is passive, and the latter is active.
Provided we have the physiology to support the
sense of hearing, we hear a thing (whether we like it
Listening, by contrast, is a choice, a willful act. We
have to actually do something to listen.
One of us, at the tender age of 43, was fitted with
the latest in digital hearing aids, to treat a hereditary
early hearing loss. While his wife notices a marked
improvement in his hearing, she says the $5,000 they
spent on the devices didn’t do much for his listening.
Our willingness to listen seems to be driven, in part,
by our perception of how valuable the information
we’re hearing is to us. In other words, if you really
need or want the information you’re hearing, you bet
your boots you’ll listen.
Imagine that you’re on a flight, on a hub-and-spoke
airline, and you’ve got an almost impossibly tight
connection. (If you’re accustomed to connecting
through Atlanta, this will require little imagination on
your part.) The flight attendant is reading off the list
of connecting gates. You need to hear your city. The
PA quality is Edisonian, and the person next to you is
ripping off some clamorous, bourbon-induced snores.
You’re demonstrating what it really means to listen,
The opposite of listening is waiting to talk. Maybe
one reason we so often fail at listening is because we
excel at its opposite. Just like sneezing while holding
your eyes open, it is simply impossible to both speak
and listen simultaneously. We would all do well to
take the occasional look in the mirror, as a reminder
that most of us were endowed with exactly one
mouth, and double that ration of ears.
Good leaders have developed the habit of listening.
They’ve made it part of their nature. It’s a strategy.
Even if you think you’re in the habit of listening most
of the time, here are some specific instances when
we, as leaders, really need to listen, but often fail to:
* During interviews. Here our tendency to listen for,
and therefore hear, what we want to hear really bites
us, and bites us hard, with long-lasting implications.
* When addressing the troops. When interacting with
a group of employees (or others,) we commonly
ask, “how’s it going?”, never stopping to listen to the
answer, if there even is one. That’s too bad, because
the response can be telling. We would do well to
allow (even encourage) the person to respond, and
to discern between what we heard, (e.g., “fine”) and
what we did NOT hear, as in even a scintilla of
* Listen to your heart.
Hearing Aids – and we won’t charge you
$5000 for these.
1. Be Prepared - Listening is hard work and takes
practice. Clear the decks, be ‘in the moment.’
2. Quiet the mind – in the same way that listening
can’t take place while we’re talking, it doesn’t happen
when we’re thinking about something else.
Consciously put all those other thoughts, worries,
and problems you’re trying to solve on ‘hold’ while
you’re listening to someone else. You can come back
and pick them up later.
3. Focus – We all like to talk (brag?) about multi-
tasking. This is one area where the concept is just
plain useless. Focus on the person you are listening
to, nothing more, period.
4. Listen with your Eyes - That’s right, many good
listeners listen as much with their eyes (and other
senses) as they do their ears. What are the other
person’s facial gestures? What is their body language
telling you? A good self test is try to remember the
color of the other person’s eyes.
5. Listen with Empathy – We listen best when we
listen for understanding. It helps to put yourself in
the other person’s shoes and try to appreciate not
just what they are saying, but what they are feeling.
You can’t do that if you are being judgmental, or
readying your response.
6. Ask Questions - As with any good reporter, getting
a full appreciation for what the other person is saying
(trying to say) necessitates the asking of questions,
sometimes tough questions.
7. Take Notes – More than just a symbol, taking
notes actually serves to reinforce for your brain what
the other person is saying.
8. Play it Back – don’t leave the conversation until
you’ve verbally summarized (not parroted) what
you’ve just listened to.
Here’s one more thing we’ll ask you to listen to. This
time of year, many people choose to share some of
what they have with others less fortunate. This year,
we’ve chosen to support the USO, an organization
that proudly serves the men and women who serve in
the United States Armed Forces. It’s not about the
war, but about those who daily sacrifice so much, in
the U.S.’s all-volunteer forces. Please visit the USO
online, at www.uso.org, and if
so inclined, send them a donation.
And finally, we close our final 2006 issue of Fresh Milk
by thanking you for being a subscriber, for your
interest in our work, and for your comments and
interaction throughout the year. For those of you
who are our clients, thank you for the privilege and
opportunity to serve you. For those who are not...
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah,
Kwanzaa, The New Year, or nothing at all, we both
wish you a peaceful, restful, and fun, and we must
say it – contented - season – one that will leave you
energized and enthusiastic about the opportunities
coming in the new year.
If we can be of service to you, please let us know.
Bill and Richard