The Difference Between Hearing and Listening
by Gary Burnison
“Every time we have a discussion, there’s complete alignment—100 percent buy-in.” It sounded too good to be true—and, as it turned out, it was.
I can distinctly remember the interview we conducted with an executive at the start of the pandemic. When we asked him about his process for getting buy-in from his team, the executive couldn’t wait to give an example. “During a Zoom meeting with my team, we had a particularly important decision to make. So, I went around to everyone and asked for a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’ on my idea. Before they voted, I told them that, for me, this was definitely a ‘thumbs up.’”
“And how did that work out?” we asked him.
“Amazing—it was unanimous!” he said. “One person’s hand wavered a little bit, but in the end, it was ‘thumbs up’ as well. It was just incredible to see 10 people on my screen—all completely aligned.”
Needless to say, this wasn’t listening.
If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that those days are over. Now we need to be more radically human—vulnerable, authentic, empathetic, aware. Or, in a word, graceful.
That aha moment came for me this week when I traveled cross-country and found myself in a hotel conference room full of people for the first time in 18 months. It struck me that so much of what we used to do by rote had become oddly unfamiliar—even packing my bag, shaking hands, or sitting in that conference room. It truly felt like an out-of-body experience.
So, I turned to this room full of people—none of whom I’d met before—and told them what I was feeling. “It’s surreal, isn’t it?” Immediately, all 19 people in that room started nodding, smiling, and sharing their own experiences.
As the days have turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and the months into almost two years, what had been organic became inorganic.
Today, it’s about finding a new way—taking the best from the old world and bringing it into the new. For leaders, this starts with not simply hearing, but rather listening—particularly to what we don’t want to hear.
But if we only listen to people who look like us and think like us, then all we’re going to hear is … well, us. As David Dotlich, PhD, a senior leader in our Consulting business who advises CEOs and boards, told me this week, “Today, the biggest gifts we can give others are our attention and our willingness to listen. We’re telling others, ‘I see you. I hear you.’”
Sure, listening takes time—that most precious of commodities. But the payoff can be immeasurable. When people are listened to, they’re motivated. And when they’re motivated, they feel validated. And when they feel validated, they outperform.
Here are some thoughts:
- Listening for the “why.” I received a call this week from a friend wanting to discuss his 27-year-old daughter who had just changed full-time jobs for the fourth time in five years. Now, just two weeks into her latest job, she was interviewing with yet another company. Like so many career nomads, she was tempted to make a leap, hoping to land somewhere, anywhere. When I asked why she was changing jobs so soon, she replied half-jokingly, “Because I could.” But could may not mean should. So, I asked her, “What’s your why?” She paused. “My what?” Now we were getting somewhere. “Your why is your purpose, your intrinsic motivator—the reason for making this decision,” I explained. She then let down her guard and proceeded to give me a window into her why: remote everything, every day feels the same, disconnected, missing being with people…. But she was only two weeks in and there was so much she could do where she was: connect with coworkers, network across the company, learn all she could, and shape—not just adapt to—the culture. In the end, instead of running away after 14 days, she decided to stay. The difference was her why—finding it and someone to listen for it.
- “You’re breaking up.” I’ll never forget being in the back of that room years ago. A meeting was going on, and a person asked a sincere question, albeit not something that needed to be addressed immediately. The leader quite literally dismissed the question, saying, “That’s not what we’re talking about.” It was like the air was sucked out of that space—everything stopped. But that leader seemed completely unaware of the impact on every person. At that moment, whether he knew it or not, the connection he was trying to build with colleagues was breaking up. No one would speak up and no one was listening. The antidote is grace. Make it safe for others to tell their truth.
- Explain, express, explore. Today, we need more horizontal leadership, building connections and communities. This is not a thumbs up, thumbs down world—it’s all about “tell me more.” As Dominique Virchaux, our president of South America, told me this week, “It doesn’t even matter if our answers are ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Just not ‘but.’” Nothing shuts things down faster than that word. When one person floats an idea or asks a question, then another jumps in with “but,” what comes next is always negative. Invariably, it leads to disagreement—not constructive conflict. Replacing “but” with “and” is an elevator—raising the horizon to build community.
A postscript to my first, live multi-person meeting in many months: After a several-hour session, one of the participants said, “Wow! This was my first meeting in which somebody didn’t have to say, ‘[Fill in name], you’re on mute!’” Amen to that!
The difference between hearing and listening is comprehending. After all, knowledge is what you know, wisdom is acknowledging what you don’t know. Listen, learn, and then lead.
Originally published on Kornferry.com by Gary Burnison. Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.