Shall we talk about listening?

Shall we talk about listening?

Posted on November 5, 2019 · Posted in blog, News

Let’s face it: listening well doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We all have ears, and most of us are lucky enough to be able to hear (and even those of us who do not, can read lips or signs, or find alternate ways to receive information). But most of us do not know how to listen well. 

I can definitely attest to that: One of the biggest challenges for me as a coach was learning to listen well. When I started my training as a coach I was horrified to discover how bad a listener I had been hitherto. I had no idea. I was sure I was a great listener. 

Business and families – any relationships really – are held together by communication. Poor communication means failed businesses – and failed relationships. 

And any communication requires GOOD listening. Effective listening. It doesn’t come naturally!

But how often do we train managers in the workplace to listen truly well?

Why do we need to listen?

For coaches, our listening “guru” is Nancy Kline, creator of The Thinking Environment. (I highly recommend you look at her wonderful work, known as Time To Think.)

Here’s what she has to say: 

The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.

The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.”

How we treat each other starts with LISTENING with intent and palpable attention. 

Research shows that when people know that they are heard, they:

– Think better (because they aren’t rushed to put a word in; because someone is actually interested in their thinking) 

– Are more creative (this stems from the above, inter alia)

– Are bound to be more motivated (and there’s plenty of research that shows that recognition is a super-powerful motivator)

To put it simply, it makes business sense to listen.

What stands in the way of becoming better listeners? 

When we look at the science behind listening, here’s what we know: The average person speaks at 125 words per minute, while our brains process information much more quickly, and with a tendency to have biases built in.

As a result, our attention wanders while listening – planning how to reply, thinking about an upcoming meeting, what shall we have for lunch, etc. This on top of our built-in biases, which operate like a mental gate allowing only certain data in and leaving other parts out. 

Biases are based on multiple factors from personal preferences to prejudices (yes, sadly, we all have some) to mood and context. To try and uncover our biases requires effort, time, skill and openness – and usually a good thinking partner. All of which which are usually inaccessible at the very moment of listening. Complex, indeed! 

Do not ever believe that you can listen well while doing something else. The truth is that we miss important information when our attention is elsewhere.

The most effective listeners learn to focus their brain capacity to improve listening. Rather than allowing their thoughts to wander, they use the extra processing capacity to focus on what the speaker is saying, their demeanour, and what isn’t said. 

To become a good listener, you need to use the extra capacity you have (as your brain is faster than the speaker’s speaking), to process the speaker’s words, identify key points, and mentally summarise them.

Good questions to ask yourself here would be: 

– “What is the whole conversation about?”

– “What are the main ideas, conclusions, and arguments?”

– “Is this all of the information?”

– “What is going on below the surface?” 

– “Do I have assumptions about this that I need to re-evaluate?”

– “Is what I have to ask, or say, next, worth interrupting this person’s train of thought?”

Practising the art of active listening 

A word of caution: “active” is almost an oxymoron when coupled with “listening”.

The “active” here is about the attention and intention while listening. Apart from the above-mentioned questions to work with while listening, the other very useful practices are summarizing and paraphrasing. It is about repeating the essence of what the person said (when they finished her piece, with no interruptions). At first, it might seem artificial, even unnecessary.

Then: Why do it?

Because by paraphrasing, you will achieve 3 goals:

1. It will help you with focusing on listening rather than becoming impatient or distracted by that lunch, task or annoyance you might be dealing with.

2. It will help progress the conversation because as you repeat what you heard, the speaker knows you’ve heard her; and she can correct you in the case of misunderstanding.

3. It ultimately requires the speaker to own their message.

Nancy Kline’s workshops with clients require a truly powerful exercise. We have tried it with numerous groups and some individuals in one-on-one sessions. They find it really hard and awkward to begin with – but then they get it.

Sit with someone who’s prepared to try this with you. Ask them to tell you something – anything that’s real – and sit back and listen. Five whole minutes or until they finished speaking. Do not interrupt, do not nod or smile or frown. Focus on deeply listening – use your extra processing capacity to ensure you’re still focused, and that you can mentally summarise the points. 

Why not nod or smile? In order to minimise the effect of your own thoughts and possible biases to the speaker. To allow them to purely think in the luxury of knowing they won’t be interrupted. And without making them feel they need to go the way you “approve” of, or avoid what you seem to not like. 

At the end of the five minutes or when the person has completed their story; try to paraphrase in a few points (summarise) the story to check you received the message(s) correctly.

How did it go?

If you have any other tips or ideas or have any questions, please write to us – we promise to respond. Would love to LISTEN to your thoughts!

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