Don't just do something, stand there!

Jun 30 2008 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

How often in a situation where's there's conflict to be resolved, a problem to be solved or a dilemma to be unbundled, do you immediately jump in, reactively, with a quick solution or retort?

How often in such situations might you be hearing, but not listening? How often have you found that after jumping in with a solution or other response, you maybe did not get the whole story, see the complete picture or understand on a deeper level?

One reason we have a tendency to jump in is because our minds are working at 90 miles an hour, making judgments on the fly - judgments and assumptions that are often quick, misguided, off-putting and just plain incorrect.

"Listen to understand before being understood" is a principle that is bandied about in all of the "effective listening" literature. We all say we "get it." We all feel we have this capacity - we're "good at" listening. But, how often do we really, really listen before being understood and before reacting? Honestly?

Listening is not easy, especially today. In an age when we are caught up in 25-second sound bites, when we are inundated incessantly with input from our electronic devices, listening and focusing are very real challenges - challenges not easily met by most folks. Why?

Being raised in, or living in, a media age, many of us have become addicted to the need for immediate stimulation, resulting in a brain that is under-developed and one in which hyperactivity (the need to move incessantly from stimulus to stimulus - from blackberry, to Facebook, to TV, to email), makes focused attention impossible.

This hyperactivity is also responsible for our inability to listen and think more deeply in the moment. Because our brains require change almost every few minutes, maintaining focus and consciously listening to someone can be difficult.


  • Do you feel you're a good listener? How do you know? Would you feel comfortable asking others (at work, at home, at play, in your relationship) what they think?
  • Have you recently been told you're not a good listener (at work, at home, at play, in your relationship)?
  • Do you have a tendency to jump from electronic device to electronic device?
  • Are you addicted to any of your electronic devices? If you say "no," can you do without it (them) for an hour, a week? If not, you're addicted - justifications and denials notwithstanding.
  • Would folks say you're often the first to jump in with a suggestion, a solution, an answer...even when they may not be asking for one?
  • Do you have a reputation as one who's always "fixing" others without their asking?
  • Do you ever feel unheard, unseen, invisible when speaking with others?
  • Do you ever hijack or "one-up" others' experiences?
  • Would you consider yourself to be a compassionate and empathic person?
  • Do you ever ask others if they think you understood them, before you claim you did understand them?
  • What one or two ways this week or next can you "listen to understand before being understood?"

Since we have conditioned ourselves for more and more stimulation, more quickly, and because our low brain areas require this consistent stimulation and our cerebral cortex (the thinking/listening-related parts of the brain) are underutilized, we don't find ourselves really listening. Rather, we find ourselves being more reactive, especially when the situation calls for deeper reflection and understanding.

When listening is called for, what we deliver instead is a knee-jerk response. We're so keen to "do" something that rather than empathise and take time to consider what is really being said, we hijack the other's experience, correcting it and suggesting an immediate (and inappropriate) solution

When this happens, those across from us often feel unheard, unappreciated and invisible - anything but "listened to."

It's not a great way to build trust, engender mutual respect or cultivate conscious, healthy relationships.

So, the next time you're in a situation that calls for listening, don't be so quick to reassure, give advice, or explain your side or perspective. Rather, practice being present to the person(s) who are speaking, practice empathy, try to understand the other(s) more completely, breathe deeply, clear your mind and let go of all preconceived judgments and assumptions.

Listen with your whole being, not just your ears, to others' feelings and needs, In other words, in situations that call for listening, follow the Buddhist advice: "don't just do something, stand there!"

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.

Older Comments

WOW great advice Peter. In the gap between impulse and action is the place of pause where a different response can emerge. Recently at the Knowledge and Innovation Network meeting of the Society for Organizational Learning we sat down and listened to someone's story for 30 minutes straight. Who knew I could talk for 30 uninterrupted minutes? All involved found it to be a wonderful honouring experience. As Thomas Merton (i think) once said, we honour someone by how we listen to them. It is by far the easiest way to increase performance IF it is done with genuine sincerity. The Power of Listening Podcast elsewhere on Management Issues says it all.

Dawna Jones Vancouver, B.C.

You have illuminated a very important issue for executives and managers, Peter. I believe that listening is the most important leadership skill for every boss.

As you point out, half-hearted listening sends the message that the boss doesn't really care about employees. This kind of leadership 'leads' employees to treat their work and their customers with the same level of caring, actually not caring. Why should I care about my work if my boss doesn't care about me?

Besides, since only about 7% of all communication is verbal with the rest coming from tone of voice and body language, any boss who doesn't concentrate all his/her faculties on listening will miss most of the communication. So half-hearted listening is a disaster from several perspectives.

The problem most likely stems from the belief that the most important job of any boss is to provide direction to subordinates so as to control their performance, direction in the form of goals, targets, visions, orders and other directives. This is a big job so the boss concentrates on that and is formulating a response while supposedly listening. This effort makes for very ineffective listening and thus very poor leadership, actually leadership in exactly the wrong direction.

In addition, 'direction' happens to be the most destructive action any boss can take with a subordinate since everyone hates to be treated like a robot and considers it to be demeaning and disrespectful, a sign that the boss does not care about that employee. Besides, anyone who really needs a lot of direction shouldn't be on your team.

But what everyone does need is some level of help, not direction. People who take time to help us are considered to be very caring thus leading us to treat our work and our customers with great care and respect. And the most respectful listening does not include a quick response, but a measured one given at a later time after questions to fill in any blanks and to allow the employee to provide everything known(these show you really are listening and thus really do care). This will also provide for proper reflection out of the heat of battle and coming back later, not much later, with a well thought out response is much more respectful than hip-shooting.

To understand this entire issue better, google 'Leadership, Good or Bad', include quotes.

Best regards, Ben Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed'

Ben Simonton