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The Value of Listening

by Ty Boyd

November 5,2006

Scream! Rant! Pummel your opponent with arguments until he succumbs.

That’s our attitude towards civil discourse in Charlotte. I remember when we did better. Our community was once the standard for others, especially during the civil rights era and the beginnings of school desegregation. Today, we can’t agree on anything – from how to fix our schools to how to stop the local rise in violent crime. We don’t listen and what we say can be vicious. We don’t honor the opposing view in a way that yields the greatest understanding for the greatest good.

Look at our models. On reality TV shows people yell at each other for ratings. Our local elected officials, if not overly contentious before winning their campaigns, often turn aggressive after acquiring power. Too many in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County prefer to score points with their base than to communicate and build any sort of understanding, which is critical for getting things done.

To make informed decisions that are truly our own, we must first be exposed to various sides of an issue. We can’t just absorb what one news outlet tells us is correct, whether it’s the New York Times, Fox Television, The Charlotte Observer or local radio and TV. We must be willing to consider what other parties have to say. Then, and only then, are we ready to make up our minds.

When we feel strongly about an issue, there’s a way to be forceful without being insulting. A way to listen that deeply respects the other person.

I spent my early career interviewing hundreds of people on radio and television, but I’m not sure I understood the importance of listening. I sometimes foolishly felt I was the show. Since then I’ve learned a really effective communicator puts the spotlight on others. We should be willing to consider what all parties have to say. Are we prepared to do that?

Today my company, Ty Boyd Executive Learning Systems, teaches speaking and listening skills primarily to Fortune 1000 executives. Everyone assumes speaking in public is far more difficult to learn than listening. I disagree. We all assume we’re great listeners, but we kid ourselves.

In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott tells this story to demonstrate how complex true listening can be. An obese man describes how much he hates his weight during a workshop on communication skills. Three people listen to his comments. One listens for content. A second listens for emotion. A third listens for the intent. The person who listens for content decides the man is truly embarrassed by his situation. The person who listens for emotion feels the man is truly hurting. The person who listens for intent concludes the speaker is not going to do anything about his situation. At break, the obese man is the first person headed to the cookies and high-energy drinks. Of his three listeners, only one fully grasped the full message.

Effective listening requires us to hear content, emotions, and intent. It means not interrupting and suspending judgment until the speaker is finished. Resist going in for the quick kill, however temporarily satisfying that may be. We must begin every conversation, whether at the dinner table, the board room, or the City Council chambers, with an attitude of respect for the value of listening.

Some of our leaders understand this. Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, is a consensus builder. So is Parks Helms, chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, a Democrat. They both represent their parties honestly, without a tone of malice.

Among media outlets, “The Diane Rehm Show,” an NPR program on WFAE 90.7 fm, provides two hours of thoughtful conversation each weekday. But I also seek a range of perspectives from several different sources. That’s one way I try to keep my mind open.

When executives in a company really listen to their employees, the result is lower turnover and higher productivity. The same principle works in communities and cities. We must each of us take responsibility for making our conversations, meetings, and public forums more constructive and less contentious.

I know it’s not easy, but the future of our city, the city we love, is at stake.

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