As counter-intuitive as it may appear, the art of listening actually begins with self-awareness.

Self-aware people understand what motivates them and their decision-making. They recognize their feelings (as they happen) and how they affect their thoughts. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Self-aware people understand their proclivity to bias and blind spots.

How? I like the way Anthony K. Tjan described it in an HBR article when he referred to a trinity of self-awareness, “know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself.” You see, self- aware leaders are active truth-seekers who commit to intellectual honesty and surround themselves with different types of people who understand and complement each other. Individually and collectively, they develop social intelligence.

Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness—becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. In its simplest form, mindful meditation is an intentional awareness of being, focusing on the breath. If, or rather, when a thought occurs, the person simply acknowledges the thought without judgement, and returns to a focus on the breath. The practice leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people, and the context in which we live and work. It provides a framework for social awareness.

In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007), Daniel Goleman describes social awareness as a spectrum that runs from instantaneously sensing another’s inner state, to understanding their feelings and thoughts, and to “getting” complicated socials situations. Goleman lists these as:

  • Primal empathy: Feeling with others; sensing non-verbal emotional signals.
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person.
  • Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
  • Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works.

Whether they agree or disagree with what they are hearing, reading, or seeing, leaders who excel in the art of listening are fully receptive to the person communicating. They use active listening to signal their attunement. Self-aware listeners facilitate rapport with full, sustained presence, going beyond momentary empathy, similar to what they practice in mindfulness.

How do you define the art of listening? How do you sustain it?  Is it challenging to simply listen when you disagree with the person speaking?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.