In the “The Servant as Leader,” one of Robert Greenleaf’s original essays, he wrote about the leader of “a large, important and difficult-to-administer public institution,” who was unhappy with the way things were going.
He took the unusual step of not reading newspapers or listening to news broadcasts for three months, depending entirely upon what he heard from those around him to know what was going on.
As Greenleaf tells it, “In three months his administrative problems were resolved.”
It sounds simple, and it is. Yet it is difficult. Greenleaf asked, “Why is there so little listening?” and then suggested that the path to servant leadership is “through the long arduous discipline of learning to listen.”
In his little book, “The Art of Listening in a Healing Way,” James Miller asks, “When was the first time you felt really listened to?” and then reminds us of the difference between hearing and listening.
Listening is paying attention to what is seen, non-verbal communication, as well as what is heard – the sound and meaning of words.
He says that when you really listen to what someone is saying you rely on your eyes as much as your ears – how the speaker looks and moves.
Miller claims that only a third of the message comes from what the ear can pick up – the tone of voice, the rhythm of the words, and the rate of speaking.
Active listening is anything but passive. It takes discipline, time and concentration.
And it is not necessarily silence. A good listener knows when to respond and to ask appropriate questions without taking over the conversation.
Much of what is required for listening is lost with our constant e-mailing, texting, tweeting, Facebook and other electronic instant communications.
Even as we hear and read more we listen less. We have more information, but less understanding of one another.
If Greenleaf were alive today I think he would tell us the same thing as what I heard him say over 30 years ago: that listening is the way to become an effective servant leader.
As much as he would have recognized the value, if not importance of email, social media and even phone conversations, he would tell us that there comes a time to shut it down, turn it off, take messages and learn to listen.
He might say that in a conversation interrupted by phone, text and email messages the other person doesn’t feel listened to nor understood.
I’m sure that he would agree with the Storycorps theme that “listening is an act of love.”