As a young person, I was pretty much the opposite of a good listener. I had a sharp reminder of this last week when someone shared the yearbook from when we were 18 on Facebook. Besides the usual nice fluff, there was something about me always wanting to change people’s minds (whether they wanted me to or not). Marvellous. There I was, an egotistic teenager at a local comprehensive ready to tell you, you were wrong!
It took me many years to realise that someone actively trying to force an opinion change was a counterproductive strategy. I would feel the tension of it, the stress of my own will. The control freak who needed things (and people) to end up a certain way.
Having become quite anxious in my early career, and sought Mindfulness training as a new way of living, I have become increasingly interested in the power of the opposite, the power of true listening.
So, why do we not listen?
Well, there is host of reasons, many you’ll be familiar with. It can be useful to tune into our own patterns. Awareness is a first step. For some it’s control. When talking, we are in familiar territory, we don’t have to be vulnerable or connect with someone, we can just talk through all that. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we can find it very difficult to be quiet or listen in the presence of another due to a discomfort in our own skin.
For others, it’s more the effort. It’s easy to just talk away. Whereas to truly listen and stay present enough to really understand, that takes work.
Many are purely distracted, listening isn’t always the most dopamine-inducing experience, better to be off thinking about something else half the time or checking our phones on the side. A lack of attention stemming from a culture of being distracted. We’ve all done it. Many don’t like themselves for it but it’s become a habit, a symptom of a scattered mind.
What are the consequences?
Evidently, in a business context, misunderstanding colleagues can lead us to hours or even days and weeks of wasted time and energy. Sometimes a lack of listening can mean we misunderstand the priority or scope of a project or sometimes, it might even cost us a relationship as a client doesn’t feel properly understood.
As a leader, it means we don’t really tune into our employees and their needs.
In an ever more competitive environment, relationships are of ever increased importance. Relationships are built on understanding. Understanding is built on listening. That’s why the ability to listen and understand is a key hallmark of emotional intelligence (EQ) in a leader. In brief, leaders with the best EQ embedded departments perform better. Read my article on how Emotional Intelligence is a difference-maker for leaders.
So yes, listen more effectively (alongside building other EQ skills) and the bottom line improves. Not just ‘nice’ for people’s working lives but a practice that makes business sense.
Listening to understand
I stopped in my tracks when I first read Stephen Covey’s quote:
‘Most people listen with the intent to reply, not the intent to understand’
Hmm, was I really just in a conversation to talk and express my opinion?…Maybe. I felt a deep sense of guilt.
When we listen to understand, we set aside our own beliefs, judgements, bias and allow the person to explore their ideas and solutions deeply. This is quite radical. It can usually feel quite powerful for the person receiving the listening because, basically, most people don’t really listen.
But when you really do, something amazing happens. What you create is a thinking environment.
A Thinking Environment
The work and indeed, the term, Thinking Environment, was pioneered by Nancy Kline. She began this work in 1973 when she set up a school in Washington DC to answer the question – what does it take for people to think for themselves – with rigour, imagination, courage and grace?
This work became largely about the conditions needed from a listener to help another generate this kind of optimal thinking.
Nancy Kline says:
‘The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking’
In the Mindful Communication training I deliver in businesses, we define and practice the quality of great listening and watch the deepening and understanding emerge. It’s action learning.
If it interests you to practice listening, you could practice some of the following to support your efforts:
- Adopt a sense of curiosity of ‘not-knowing’ to your listening with an open and receptive facial expression. Often, we misunderstand aspects of what someone says and fill in the blanks with our own thoughts. Experiment with listening intently to their exact words.
- Allow the person you’re with to deepen their thinking (on a challenge for example) by offering exploratory questions such as ‘Anything else?’, ‘What else?’ or ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ Assume they have the answers they need, hold back on advice-giving, these are your ideas which may not suit their problem or situation as they may not yet have explored it fully.
- Once you have done a significant amount of listening, reflect back what the person has said. Aim to use as much of their language as possible so that you don’t imply your words or phrases are better.
- If it interests you, adopt a meditation practice to train your focus as well as building your awareness. If you want a sample meditation to have a go, feel free to contact me and I’ll send you one.
- Use silence. Sometimes the best thinking can happen when neither of you are talking. Practice allowing that space. You can use the weight of your body to anchor you in the moment when you feel the urge to speak.
It can feel when practising our listening that we’re not doing very much because we’re not speaking a lot. But what we are doing is training our presence and building attention for that person. This attention is powerful as it allows their mind to open to the answers that they have inside themselves already. Here you are giving permission and autonomy to the person sharing.
What a gift to offer an optimal thinking environment, who doesn’t want that for ourselves and each other?