The Power of Invisibility

What do innovative executives, genius marketers, masterful sales people and the new breed of disruptive digital leaders all share in common?

A largely invisible skill-set is the fundamental core of all leadership and communication impact: listening.

The highly successful have an extraordinary capacity to listen deeply and well to the business and personal conversations that matter in the marketplace. Without such powerful, precise and acute listening, any subsequent speaking is liable to fall flat.

Business life is a highly connected series of “engaged listenings” — complex situations where listening dynamics afford a decisive professional and competitive edge: starting a new venture, leading a team, acquiring a company, negotiating a buy-out, strategizing with your partners, serving your clients, learning from your customers.

While the overarching importance of effective communication is obvious, the pivotal role of listening is largely missed and often reduced to behavioral techniques under the rubric of so-called “active” listening.

Within the practice of active listening, listening is used instrumentally to demonstrate (both verbally and non-verbally) something directly observable to the speaker. For example, in order to (1) acquire information, (2) show paying attention and (3) build rapport, the listener is taught various overt tips to convey engagement and interest: nodding in agreement, leaning forward, using “minimal encouragers” (such as “…uh-huh,” “…right,” “…really”), asking open-ended questions and so on.

Mirroring (verbally: repeating the few last words, summarizing the gist of what was heard; non-verbally: matching the posture and even the breathing pattern of the speaker) is particularly powerful for inducing connection while often staying outside the awareness of the speaker.

No one likes to be manipulated, however. Active listening works its surface magic only as long as it is not seen by the speaker as a technique being used on them. If the perceived engagement and interest is assessed as purely simulated and faking sincerity, then the technique backfires.

Highly successful experts inevitably listen deeply and well as an integral part of their professional practice. Such master listeners include world class exponents in fields such as: design, coaching, facilitation, mediation, negotiation, therapy, sales, and, of course, leadership.

Master listeners are committed to being present in such as way as to focus on tuning into and grasping the world of the speaker to whom they attend. They are not attending for mere handy information being transmitted. More powerfully, they begin to see the world as the speaker does and also come to appreciate deeply what it means to be or exist in that world as revealed by the speaker and their concerns, as directly stated or indirectly inferred.

Let’s term this deeper approach “world listening” and acknowledge that its sophisticated territory falls far outside the limited, transactional moves of active listening.

To begin penetrating and mastering world listening, we need to ask a rather fundamental question whose answer opens a possibility for reinventing communication itself.

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What is the phenomenon we call “listening”?

Clearly, listening is not just hearing. Siri and Alexa may hear but they do not listen in the way novelist Anne Rice captures in the following remarkable passage from Interview with the Vampire:

“I was at a loss suddenly; but conscious all the while of how Armand listened; that he listened in the way that we dream of others listening, his face seeming to reflect on every thing said. He did not start forward to seize on my slightest pause, to assert an understanding of something before the thought was finished, or to argue with a swift, irresistible impulse — the things which often make dialogue impossible.”

Siri and Alexa can certainly exchange information with you: you ask, they answer, but neither “gets you” as a person. They cannot “grok” or understand you intuitively or with empathy. They are disembodied agents with an artificial intelligence twist but no soul. They have no Dasein or being-in-the-world as originally articulated by Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

(The term Dasein is used by Heidegger to denote the ordinary, everyday way of being of human being. It is a technical term featured in his 1927 magnum opus Being and Time.)

Dasein is always already engaged in projects of care reflective of the stand it takes on its own being.

Only authentic Dasein listens.

Listening is opening a space for the possibility of attuning to the world of another being-in-the-world. From that space, a deep appreciation of what is at stake reveals itself for inquiry and action.

Listening is thus an allowance (or surrender) to be influenced by another and joining in their concerns as one’s own. In the absence of authentic care, only mechanical hearing is possible. World listening is never superficial information gathering.

Only when you listen to others and genuinely appreciate their perspectives can you understand, learn and make informed choices that are strategic.

Being fully present, opening yourself to another person, and giving your undivided attention are all profoundly affirming to them and powerfully motivating in securing enrollment for action. In essence, by listening to another, you acknowledge their existence and thus grant them being a valued partner in co-creating the future.

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Photo courtesy of Aaron Strout

The importance of world listening in an increasingly global, diverse and hyper-paced environment is growing daily. In a society riven by commercial and political challenges across generations, faiths, races, gender-identities, and wealth inequalities, sporadic waves of mere active listening will simply not suffice for anyone truly being heard.

In order to remain relevant and effective, professionals must develop profound listening proficiency in ever-increasing circles across diverse clientele, markets, audiences and constituencies.

Before you next communicate as a leader, remember you are always already speaking into an invisible, ordinary, everyday listening. Masterful world listeners listen for that listening first and shape their actions accordingly.

This article is the second in a series. Next up: Paradoxes of Insight.

Previous article: The Pathway to Breakthrough.

Written by

Milo is the founder and Chief Education Officer of KnowledgePassion, Inc. Connect with him at milo@designthinking.com

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