Dr. C: Listen to the music

April 14, 2013 

There are two ways to listen to songs -- both at work and at home. You can listen to the words alone, or you can listen to the music. The words don’t always tell the whole story; it’s the music that gives us the feelings behind the words.

Most of us feel we’re doing well if we can just listen to the words; life is moving at such a fast pace. At work, we’re doing more with fewer people and at home the bills come in faster than the income.

When we hear people talk or we read a memo or we play our voice mail, most of us are thinking: “hurry up, hurry up -- get to the point.” We barely have time to listen to the words; how could we ever take the time to listen to the meaning behind the words?

But this is the kind of listening every leader must learn. Whether you’re the supervisor or the president of the company; whether you’re the superintendent or the teacher in the school; whether you’re the parent or the grandparent -- you must learn to listen to the meaning behind the words.

It’s like a song. If you erase the music, the lyrics sound hollow. Even rap songs, which have little melody at all, make better sense with the beat.

How many times have you criticized an email only to find out later that’s not what was meant at all? How many times have you been crushed when someone read what you had written and confronted you in anger? How many times have you punished your child and found out later that you misunderstood him?

How can we get behind the words? How can we cure ourselves of this “fastest gun in the West” reaction to the words we hear? You’ve heard that old cliché, “What I hear you saying is ... .” But if you say this with candor and sincerity, it will work.

More times than not, you’ll receive an answer like this: “No, that’s not exactly what I meant; I meant this.” Then you can say, “OK, now let me see if I understand; what I’m hearing is this ...”

Four days after I buried my 3-month old baby girl, I sat in a friend’s office and said, “I hate God.” My friend said, “Talk about it.” He wasn’t shocked; he wasn’t hurt. He didn’t give me a sermon on “why God lets bad things happen to good people.” He was listening to the music, not the words. He knew the music was much more important. “If there is a God,” I blurted out, “and this God has control over what happens to us, he could have prevented the crib-death of my daughter. He didn’t. He let her die. I hate him.”

I cursed God. I denied his existence. I damned him to hell. My friend didn’t flinch. He knew the words were just my attempt to cope with my grief. He didn’t try to correct my logic.

He didn’t try to argue with my words. He just listened to the music behind them.

This friend is one of the finest leaders I have ever known. If you want to be a leader, you could begin today by practicing this technique on someone. The person you pick should be the one you really don’t like to listen to. She’s the gabby one you think is dizzy, or he’s the control-freak perfectionist who takes forever to finish an assignment.

Ordinarily, the minute one of them starts to talk, you tune out. Let him pick the topic (he always does, anyway). This time, instead of walking away, stand there and look intently in his face. Gradually, as he talks, inject quick questions such as “So you think that ... ?” or “You really feel that ... ?” As he talks, ask yourself, “What’s behind these words?” What motivates this person? What scares him? What does he want from me? What could I give him?

The lyrics don’t tell the whole story. If you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to listen to the music.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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