By Josh Perlman,  Leadership Developer, Facilitator & Coach

Try this exercise with a group of your leaders and see what happens.

Write the word “SILK” on a flipchart or whiteboard (use appropriate markers, please). Ask your meeting participants that you’d like them to spell this word out loud three times as a group and then say this word out loud three times as a group. Walk them through this activity so they are all speaking together as one. After they have done this, immediately ask the question, “What do cows drink?” and see what they say. Most of the time, respondents will say “milk”(after years of doing this, I am usually told that baby cows drink milk however, cows actually drink water).

The average person can speak somewhere between 100-150 words per minute and the average person can also think approximately 400 words per minute. In other words, we think faster than we speak and therefore, we don’t listen, we just wait to speak. And, because the human mind can process information a lot faster than the rate of normal speech, unless you concentrate on what the speaker is saying, your mind begins to use the extra time by thinking about other things.

Managing tasks and relationships with an employee, peer, or manager requires that you know how to communicate appropriately. Communication skills are therefore the basic building blocks for being a masterful and world-class leader and coach. Communication is sharing information in such a way that a person understands what you are saying and you understand what they are saying. Communication is complex and listening is central to your success as a leader. Listening is:

  • A crucial step of every interpersonal and communication skill. Every book on human communication discusses listening as a key skill.
  • A powerful skill for building relationships.
  • The basis of good relationships. Poor listening destroys relationships.
  • Your ticket to talk. Employees are more likely to listen to a manager who listens to them.
  • A powerful tool for reducing conflict. How often have we heard someone say, “If only you would listen…” in a conflict situation? The simple act of listening can diffuse many conflict situations.

Communication Realities

  • You cannot not
  • Whenever contact is made, communication occurs.
  • Meanings are in people, not in words.
  • Meanings cannot be transferred from one mind to another; only words can be transferred.
  • All communications are received, but 70% – 90% are screened out or changed by the receiver.

The Difference between Listening and Hearing

  • Hearing is the physical ability to accept and transmit sound waves from the eardrum to the brain.
  • Listening is the ability to put meaning to that transmission.
  • The function of listening is to understand what the other person is saying, not necessarily agree with it.

Listening is far more than hearing. Hearing and silent understanding, difficult enough for many, are only the first steps to listening.

Barriers to Listening

Preoccupied with something else

It is difficult to listen to someone else when something is on your mind, e.g., your own problems, something important you are working on, a deadline, someplace you have to go, etc. You cannot concentrate on what the other person is saying when you are preoccupied.


It is almost impossible to listen to someone when you are constantly interrupted by phone calls, people walking in, a TV program playing, or other distractions.

Mind is already made up

You have already made up your mind on the subject and having further conversations with another person will not change your mind. Therefore, you don’t full listen to someone else has to say about the matter.

Lack of interest

Related to the above, when you are not personally interested in the topic, it is much easier to “tune the person out” and begin thinking about something else.

Defensive reaction to criticism

It is particularly difficult to listen to criticism. The natural human response is to become defensive and to get angry. Often you begin thinking about why the person is wrong and what you are going to say. Such a defensive response prevents you from listening well enough to seriously consider the merit of what the person is saying.

In summary, listening, which leads to better understanding of others, is the most crucial skill of a successful leader. Now, let’s go have some milk, I mean, water.

About MCG Partners

MCG Partners a woman-owned, Greater Boston-based consultancy specializing in executive coaching, leadership development, talent management, and organizational development solutions. We help businesses optimize success through the entire management life-cycle. MCG Partners is also a Predictive Index® (PI®) certified partner.