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Why Is Listening So Hard?

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

I met an old colleague, a few years later after working together. He made a statement that caught me by surprise: “The biggest change in you is that now you listen”. It was a great compliment and intended to highlight the change I have been going through. But going back to the past, I was convinced I was listening even before.

And because our evolution is what unlocks evolution in others, listening is one of the most common challenges my clients speak to me about. These people are experts in their field, are recognized for their success, are valuable in their roles and have dedicated time and effort to overcome the listening challenge. They have all the will required to make it. But it’s still very hard. So, why is it so hard to listen after all?

To answer the question, we need to be able to observe what we are dealing with. There are two types of changes that we encounter in our careers and lives. They are applicable both to individuals and organisations:

  1. Technical changes. This type of change can be overcome by will, effort and thinking: learning a new skill, creating new routines, designing a new operating model, revisiting a process etc.

  2. Adaptive changes. These are the type of scenarios when technical solutions have been implemented but they just don’t stick. In these cases, who we are and our internal beliefs are in conflict with the goal we have. Observing this type of challenge is hard because it’s an invisible layer, seems irrational and counterintuitive and so, is much less clear in what we deal with, not to mention the how.

In the long run, changes that are most successful address both the technical and adaptive aspects of the change. Sometimes, when we don’t recognise the type of change we are dealing with, we tackle the symptoms of an adaptive change with technical solutions. And the result of that is that we feel we push full speed ahead while having the handbrake on.

Listening can be a technical challenge for some, who just need to learn the skill, practice and become better at it. But for others, it’s an adaptive change which requires deep reflection in order to have any chance of success.

Here are some symptoms that one may observe while trying to listen:

  • I listen for a few minutes, but then I lose my patience and I cut to the chase.

  • When I see the thinking going round and round, I can’t help but provide a solution.

  • I see the person in front of me struggling with an answer, so I have to say something to save the situation

  • When I stay quiet for too long, I feel like I am wasting my time

  • The solution is obvious to me, so I need to make it obvious to others as well

  • I don’t agree with what the other person is saying, so I need to make that clear by jumping in.

  • I already know what they are going to say so I need to prove it to them as well.

What sits underneath these symptoms are some assumptions we made based on our experience to date. They are not visible, yet they drive our actions and behaviours. Here I list them as questions, to allow the reflective space for exploration:

  • Will people value me if I just listen and don’t provide solutions?

  • Is listening to real work? How can I measure it, if it’s nowhere on the goals we have?

  • Can I be paid to listen? I am not coming up with the answers after all.

  • Will I succeed as a leader if I give up the control to others?

  • Will others step up to do the solutioning work as good as I am doing it?

  • Can I be quiet and not be invisible to others?

  • Will I be respected enough if I don’t step in with the solution?

  • Who am I if I am not the expert that has the best answers?

Without exploring and experimenting with these questions, our new behaviours will seem forced and won’t be sustainable in the long term.

Change is so difficult because, at the core, it appears to threaten our identity and what made us successful so far. In reality, once we do the work, change is here to expand our understanding of who we are and release us of all assumptions that no longer work for us. We can be both the expert and the listener. The best experts are actually the ones that listen very well.

My biggest learnings, connections with others and contributions to someone’s career took place when I was not talking. Listening pays off.


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