A chance encounter with an Australian led our columnist to ponder the importance of listening with intent – and not just hearing. He writes that the implications for safety can be significant …

I recently returned from a trip to Canberra, the capital city of Australia, where I spent two weeks as part of research that I was carrying out. Having some free time over a weekend, I decided to visit the Australian War Museum, then take a walk through the city for a closer look at some of its sights.

I particularly wanted to visit the so-called “Tent Embassy” that was set up by the First Nation people (Aborigines) 48 years ago in protest against the Australian Government and in support of indigenous rights and reconciliation. On my way through the area around the Tent Embassy, I was called over by an elderly Aboriginal man sitting on a camping chair next to a small fire. He invited me to pull up a chair next to him, shook my hand and introduced himself as Kevin.

We spent 45 minutes chatting about Australia and the struggles of the Aboriginal people over the years. I found the conversation fascinating, as Kevin explained how they began the protest all those years ago and have kept it going ever since. He enlightened me on aspects of Aboriginal culture, including their belief that man, animals, nature and ancestral dreaming are all inextricably linked and share the same fate. He explained that their culture regards the earth as eternal and how, through their various rituals, the beings that created the earth remain accessible to them.

He told me about some of their ceremonies, which have been part of the Aboriginal culture for thousands of years: these rituals include dancing, symbols and body decoration, and they are passed down from generation to generation.

While we were chatting, two other Aboriginal people approached, took off their shoes and seated themselves around us, making a circle. They stared into the fire without saying a word. At the end of our chat, Kevin invited me to participate in an Aboriginal ritual by placing a branch on the fire and saying a prayer for peace and healing.

When it was time for me to leave, I shook Kevin’s hand and thanked him for the time that we had spent together. I valued the fact that he had given me the chance to listen to his story and the story of his people – a story of perseverance and hope. I will probably never meet him again. However, listening with intent to what he said helped me understand his world, a world filled with traditions, signs and symbols, signifying a connection to the Earth and nature. Somehow we felt connected. Wow, he made an impression on me, this fella from Europe.

Do we listen with intent in our roles as leaders?

Now, consider how we talk to people at our places of work (and probably also in our private lives). Do we listen with the intent of understanding? Or do we just hear what people are saying? Hearing is not listening (it is passive). Listening with intent, which is active, means listening in order to uncover the unknown, and to understand, in an interested way, what the person is saying.

It is not uncommon when we converse with people to get the feeling that they are not really listening. They might look at their watch, be distracted by someone walking past, or just clearly become lost in thoughts of their own.

Another communication weakness is not listening to the person who is talking because we are too busy thinking of what we are going to say next. We consequently miss key points that the person is raising. Then, if we ask any follow-up questions, the discussion becomes disjointed.

Have our listening skills been compromised by social media?

Just watch people at a restaurant. You will quickly see why I believe social media has probably negatively affected our skill of listening, never mind listening with intent. I have observed, for example, three people sitting at a table, having dinner, and all three of them are focused on their own mobile devices, sending and reading text messages.

In our modern age, people tend to rely more on sending and receiving text messages or emails than picking up the phone and calling or meeting the person face to face. This short-cut method of communication involves absolutely no hearing whatsoever. Sentences are often brief, providing little explanation. This leaves it up to the person reading the message or email to decipher the message without fully understanding or hearing the full context of what is being communicated.

The result is that people are losing their ability to listen with intent.

Can you imagine what Kevin’s reaction would have been if I had kept looking at my phone, reading or sending messages?

Challenging ourselves

Therefore, when challenging ourselves and evaluating our various initiatives (and wondering if they are improving our safety performance and contributing to the desired corporate culture), we need to consider some of the following:

Audits – such as management risk-focused audits – are conducted in many operations around the world. But are managers listening to their teams when discussing the details of the work being undertaken? Or are they only hearing and then ticking the box to indicate that the audit has been fulfilled?

What does it help if leaders conduct so-called engagement walkabouts on site, which are aimed at engaging with employees and contractors, but show a lack of listening with intent to what the people on the shop floor are saying?

Safety talks offer a great opportunity to encourage active listening but companies, across all industries, often fall short in this initiative. For many companies, safety talks are just a tick-box exercise. What tends to happen is that the leader (often the safety person, supervisor or foreman) reads the safety talk to his/her team and then expects them to have understood what was being read out. There is little or no engagement with the team. This is unhelpful. The aim should be to bring issues to the surface, ensure discussion and listen to what is being said to provide maximum benefit from the safety talk.

In my view, safety talks should be replaced with engagement sessions, which would, without doubt, add value to the safety communication effort. This would be time and money well spent. Engagement sessions would promote listening, engagement and understanding by those involved.

Kevin and I sitting at the “Tent Embassy”, a 48 year-long protest against the Australian Government.


Body language

Our body language gives a clear indication of whether we are genuinely interested in what the person is saying and whether we are listening with intent or just going through the motions. Standing with our arms crossed or hands on hips is a definite give-away. Looking at our watch or a clock on the wall is also a clear indication that we just want to get the conversation over and done with.

An unforgettable lesson

My discussion with my new friend Kevin opened my eyes. I ended up with a much better understanding of why the Aboriginal people have been protesting for 48 years at the same place. I understood why they are saddened by what is happening to the earth and nature in Australia, including the recent fires that were still burning at that time, and prompted me to develop an interest in the traditions of the Aboriginal people.

Had I sat there, thinking about what I could ask him next or wondering where I would go once we had finished, I would have never have grasped all he told me. I am certain that he kept talking because he saw that I was like a sponge, absorbing everything that he had to say. If I’d shown less interest, I am sure he would have ended his tales much earlier. Plus, he would probably not have invited me to participate in his ritual with the branches and the fire.

I didn’t fully realise the significance of our all sitting around the fire, almost in a circle. However, when I subsequently told my mentor, Dr Rob Long (founder of social psychology risk), of the fantastic experience I’d had, he told me that sitting in a circle around a fire was a symbolic ritual, showing that the Aboriginal people see everyone as being equal. It represents a sense of wholeness and suggests the cycle of human communication.

As I walked away, I realised that I very seldom listen in the same way as I did that day. Listening with intent does not come naturally. As leaders, we should continuously practise our listening skills to move from passive hearing to active listening with intent. The benefits will be immeasurable.

About The Author

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.

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