Are your good listening skills as poor as most? Or do you earn the right to speak by giving others your full, undivided attention as a true listener first?
Can you recall a time recently where you noticed somebody REALLY listening to you? You know, genuine uninterrupted listening? Paying you their full attention? Actually taking in everything you were saying? Maintaining eye contact? Undistracted? Acknowledging you? Respecting that they thought you have something to say and that they were interested in hearing it?
Think about it. When last have you experienced REALLY being listened to?
It’s quite rare today, isn’t it?
Have We Lost It?
Have we lost the art of listening? Are we so stressed and “pushed for time” that we have forgotten one of our most fundamental communication skills? That we are so busy concentrating on projecting ourselves and thinking of what to say next, that we simply don’t hear what’s being said anymore? That we cut people off? That we jump in and finish their sentences? That we are already formulating our response (or judgement) to what we think the other is going to say long before they actually finish saying it? That we simply can’t allow a space to give the other a chance to think? That we feel we have to jump in and fill the space, out of fear that we may not be able to have our say? Guilty?
Do you remember the debating society at school or uni where we actually allowed each other the respect of fully articulating and driving a thought or argument through to its conclusion? Where we made notes as points were made so that we could go back to clarify, counter or support them when it was our turn to speak? What happened?
Because we seem to have lost this ability, I find that Listening is one of the most fundamental soft skills that I have to spend a lot of time on in my coaching, grooming and training work with my clients today.
The benefits of good listening
- I have found that Professionals are renowned to think their value comes from their knowledge – how much they know. Of course always in context, but I have learned that a client will open up to you far more if you ask lots of (relevant) questions and give them lots of time and space to answer and to speak, than if you just keep talking and trying to impress them with how much you know. I have learned that through good listening we earn ourselves the right to make our proposals to our clients or stakeholders. I also believe that through solid active listening the ground is made so much more fertile and that the client so much more receptive to your message or proposal.
- In my listening skills grooming I teach my clients looking for an edge in their influencing skills to listen “with all your senses” where listening this way you are observing not only what they say (and what they are not saying) but how they are communicating. This allows you to notice certain traits or styles which you can then adjust your communication style to match and mirror theirs so that they feel you are “speaking their language”. That way we also focus on allowing the other person to complete their thinking and articulation process without interruption
- This latter aspect is so beautifully described in Nancy Kline’s book “Time to think”. She has devised an approach by which the chairperson goes around the table giving everyone in the team meeting the full uninterrupted time to make their point while everyone else has to accord them their full attention. She describes an example of an important researcher having been branded in his team as being “always hopelessly negative” to the point that in meetings his team mates had devised ways of “side stepping him” to ignore his points (very much to the detriment of the outcome the company needed). Given the full opportunity to follow his thoughts and ideas all the way to its end, not only did everyone hear “the full critical story” for the first time, but in the long pause allowed to think it through while he “had the floor”, the researcher actually also found a smart way of constructively formulating a solution that everyone spontaneously and enthusiastically agreed to and fully supported.
- Her formula is based on the maxim that “the quality of my listening enhances the quality of your thinking”. Powerful stuff, I assure you.
- I also recall learning the power of real listening in my coaching training when we each did over 30 telephone coaching “triad” training sessions equally spread as coach, client and observer. You could only “listen” for body language or colour changes and for all the signals that you would normally see or feel while communicating with someone. This really hones your listening skills because it makes you pick up the slightest changes in the way things are said (or not said) in addition to the actual words being spoken.
One of my clients has really taken his newfound awareness of the power of his listening skills very seriously and has been consciously practicing this “lost art” with great results. He recently commented in frustration about how bad he noticed the listening skills around him in his company environment are, and asked that we pursue some options that could help him make a difference in his company.
Here are some of the possibilities we worked out:
a) That you might (re)introduce the listening skills topic to your current team at your next staff meeting, and practice reminding them of these skills. This could be introduced together with the practice of the “Nancy Kline’s going around the table” approach where everyone gets an uninterrupted turn to fully contribute a positive and then everyone an improvement to the topic at hand, so they can experience the liberation of unfettered thinking and communication.
b) That you might in some of your next meetings arrest an interruption someone next to you was exercising over someone else around the table by showing a “halt” hand sign or touching them on the arm and (when you thought you could) and saying: “hang onto your thought for a minute Peter, I am really interested or curious about what James is saying – can we let him finish please”. People will start to notice that after a while and see the benefits compared to how ineffective their (non) listening behaviour is. If you (and your team) persevere, we thought this could actually start a “benevolent cancer” around you.
c) We suggested you might pick up transgressors you have influence over and counsel them one on one after the meeting, (but remember never to single out individuals in front of the group).
d) Perhaps next time you are together one on one with (one of) your manager(s) following a meeting where the old poor listening behaviour was prevalent, that you might comment; “wow, did you notice how the loudest seem to hog all the say, and how badly we all seem to be listening to each other in these meetings?” and then wait for a response. You can in turn pick that up depending on his/her take. You may again need to highlight that you have become acutely aware of how bad the illness is progressed and if he/she understands and buys in to your tack, to ask whether and how he/she thought you could all do something about it.
So What Next?
Can I ask you to just reflect back on a few of the meetings you were in this last week? What was happening in typical meetings around you? Were people talking over one another, cutting each other off, grandstanding, etc, or were they according those around them the respect of listening to each other? Why don’t you make a point of observing that in this coming week?
Then, if you also find this kind of “non-listening” as prevalent as I am suggesting, would you agree with me that it isn’t actually that difficult to be “better than most of those around you”? That if you were to decide and choose to focus a new awareness towards this age old skill, it could easily differentiate you from those around you? Can you see how much of a difference it could also make in your interaction with those around you, let alone the benefits you could reap from the additional influence this might enable you to exercise?
Also, you might find the following of my blogs useful to enhance your active listening skills:
+ The Power of Summarizing
+ Enhancing Communication With The Power of Playing Back
+ Jumping In. The Curse of Modern Day Impatience?
What if you could enhance your active listening skills? What if you did? What if it worked for you? What if it were a valuable change for you?
Like you, I was disturbed by the lack of listening in so many client organizations, so I spent a year researching the issue. The upshot of that research was the discovery that listening is different for each of us, that is, we develop listening habits over time that influence what we choose to listen to. Eventually, after several beta tests and lots of head-scratching, I developed Hear! Hear? Your Listening Portfolio®, an online instrument that assesses listening habits. Once people know how they listen, the strengths and challenges of their habits, they can, as you indicate, learn the skills necessary to listen appropriately and flexibly according to the situation at hand.