One of the ‘gifts’ I’m enjoying in my semi-retirement is more time pursuing my musical hobbies – including performing with local musicians and friends.  That creative outlet reinforces for me, at the deepest level, how much good musical performance demands intense listening.  This is so relevant to my ‘professional’ world of IT management consulting for a couple of reasons:

  1. The client challenge as presented is rarely the ‘real challenge.’ So, to be effective, a consultant has to listen through and beyond all the noise to hear what’s really going on.
  2. Given that much of my work is with CIO’s – often, by definition, very bright, innovative and even charismatic characters, I frequently see ‘listening deficiency syndrome’ – a failure to really listen and actually hear what is going on around them.  If they are not skilled at hearing what their audience is saying, they cannot be skilled at “selling them” the next IT enablement opportunity.
  3. The Web 2.0 world is largely about collaboration – and collaboration demands superb ‘listening’ skills (and here I’m using listening very broadly – with the eyes as well as through the ears).

There’s a wealth of material on the Internet about listening skills – books, articles, training programs, and so on, so I don’t intend to make this post a source for improving listening skills.  I will point you to the excellent Mind Tools site and their Active Listening paper as a great starting point.  But I do want to share some personal insights that have mostly come to me through my hobbies.  I guess there’s a mini-insight even in that sentence – active hobbies are really important to a healthy mind!  I often work with client IT professionals who are locked into 10-hour days, flowing into weekends, trying to get on top of email in-boxes with thousands of unread messages, who just ‘don’t have time for hobbies.’  I fear for their sanity and for their effectiveness!  I consider hobbies to be non-optional – period!

Lessons from Music and Performing

So, as I’ve tried to learn music over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of listening – and how hard that is to do when you are focused on trying to play the right notes!  For years, I played guitar.  One day I found myself in a band situation without a bass player, so I offered to try my hand at bass.  I soon realized that I had not really, deeply, listened to the bass parts in music.  I found that I really enjoyed the bass as an instrument, and started listening to my favorite music with a focus on the bass parts.  What a difference!  With focus and concentration, you can hear any given part – effectively filtering out the other parts.  And that’s an important skill in deep and active listening – whether it be in music or in discussing the business value of an IT solution!   As an aside, with guitar, you are mostly listening to the singer, other guitars or keyboards.  As a bass player, you are mostly locked on the drummer.  An interesting shift in listening perspective!  Think how that might apply to the CIO versus CTO roles, for example?

More importantly (and more challenging) when playing music with others, while the natural tendency is to focus on what you are playing, and listen to how you are sounding, I pretty quickly came to learn that the real trick was to focus on the other instruments and voices – what they are playing and how they are sounding!  It’s less about what you play, and more about what you hear!  Think about how that might apply to your role versus those of your colleagues?

Lessons from Acting and Dramatics

While we are on this performing arts thing, I learned a wonderful lesson as a teenager when I got involved in amateur dramatics.  Just as with the music experience, the natural tendency is to focus on your own lines – what you are saying.  The trick, I soon learned, was to listen to the other actors, and, more importantly, to the audience!

I learned this very quickly, the hard way.  My first ‘big’ play was a wonderful comedy – “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. (I played Boris Kolenkov, a Russian ballet instructor!)  Through weeks of rehearsal, we had a pretty good sense of the funny lines and how to deliver them.  We then got to the actual week of performances.  Everything went well for the first night, then the second.  On the third night, something very strange happened.  I delivered one of the ‘non-funny’ lines, and the entire audience roared with laughter!  Without warning, a ‘straight’ line that I’d delivered the same way for weeks of performances, was funny.  Not just to a few audience members, but to the whole audience!  And I suddenly got the joke that I’d never seen before.

This experience taught me a great deal about the challenges of comedic timing – if you aren’t ready for the laughter, you will talk over it, and the audience will miss some lines.  If, on the other hand, you pause and there’s no laughter, you’ve interrupted the flow and momentarily broken the illusion that good theater hangs upon.  The key?  Intense listening – even as you struggle to remember your next line, and how to deliver it!  The other lesson here is to listen to the pace and rhythm of your audience – and try to match that.  Talk slower to slow talkers, and faster to fast talkers.

Lessons from Powerful Dialog

Finally, and I’ve shared this chestnut before on this blog, but I think it bears repetition – one of the best nuggets of wisdom I learned from a boss many years ago, was “When in trouble, ask questions!”  And, of course, the corollary to that is, if you’re going to ask a question, you better listen deeply to the answer!

Image courtesy of WorldWork

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