All Articles Leadership Communication Don't just listen to, listen through

Don’t just listen to, listen through

4 min read


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Don’t just listen to, listen through

I recently attended a keynote presentation that could best be described as “uncomfortable.” The speaker was an accomplished professional and a bit older than almost everyone in attendance. What made his remarks disconcerting was his somewhat boastful bearing, a bit of profanity here and there, and an arguably sexist comment or two. It would have been easy for all involved to tune him out solely based on his delivery and demeanor.

That is, apparently, what many people did. One acquaintance sent me an email afterwards in which he lit into the speaker, taking offense at his arrogant approach and hurling a variety of other accusations about the man based on hearsay from other attendees.

Admittedly, it was a bit discomfiting for us all, as the speaker broke a handful of conventions of polite company. Yet, despite his off-putting delivery, I found him fascinating. Not because I didn’t wince at some of his remarks, and not because I’m more forgiving than my colleagues in the crowd. It was because I had a broader context in which to interpret his remarks, as I’ve known of him for some time. Over the years I have l gleaned a great deal from him despite his rough edges, and I’ve observed that his boasting tends to arise out of personal insecurity, an all-too human foible to which I can relate.

The experience got me thinking about how quickly we all tend to rush to judgment. Perhaps it’s a function of the 24/7 news cycle, where all day, every day we’re served up political fisticuffs and dueling pundits who stoke the fires of one another’s bad behavior. And it’s no doubt worsened by the widespread lack of decorum in social media, where a post or tweet (whether errant or intentional) can label someone for life in our minds. We may not realize how dramatically this “Wild West” media landscape is shortening our fuses and hindering our ability to learn from those who don’t roll the way we do.

Not only is it easier than ever to reflexively draw premature conclusions about people, but we also often play judge and jury regarding their motives as well, as if we had a window into their souls. But who among us hasn’t occasionally misspoken or been misinterpreted? Seldom does anybody — let alone a keynoter — intend to offend, and we may be losing out on opportunities to learn by being too quick on the judgment draw.

I’m not excusing boastful or boorish behavior, but it seems to me that when we give in to the offense we do ourselves no favors, forsaking our ability to benefit from the experience and opinions of others. That is, of course, their loss. But it’s our loss too.

Oswald Chambers, an early 20th-century Scottish preacher, said, “There is always one fact more in every man’s case about which we know nothing.” We have no idea if the person who cuts us off in traffic is rushing home to a sick child, if someone who snaps at us at work is dealing with personal financial calamity, or if an offensive keynote speaker is blind to the damage caused by his demeanor.

Effective leadership requires a high level of emotional intelligence that enables us to understand how the things we say and do come across to those around us. That said, it’s easy to say “don’t be that guy” when somebody says something offensive; what’s more difficult is preventing “that guy” from knocking us off our own game.

In any other circumstance I would have joined the chorus of the offended and dismissed our speaker as unworthy of my attention. But in this case, I had the advantage of a broader context that enabled me to listen through him, not just to him. I’m going to try to do that more often.