Six Powerful Listening Behaviors to Transform Connection

At a certain point in my life, my motto became “say less.” I’d discovered I preferred being on the outskirts of conversations, hearing and observing everyone engage with each other. I thought my position on the periphery of social environments made me an excellent listener.  

Needless to say, I was shocked when my sister told me recently, “You are a terrible listener.” I’d spent countless hours hearing her challenges and offering her sound advice or a different perspective. I’ve considered my reserved and assessing nature to be a benefit to my listening skills. So, it was a real challenge to be confronted with an opinion of me so vastly different from my own. My immediate response was defensiveness. I felt slighted by her critique. 

Putting my defensiveness aside, I decided to seek her honest feedback. I asked her to tell me more about how she felt and the specific ways in which I could have listened better. As she spoke, I listened with intention, putting aside my desire to respond in order  to truly understand her perspective. Instead of just hearing her, I took in what she was saying and observed her with a more keen awareness. I realized there was so much more to what she was saying that just her words.

There is a difference between hearing and listening.

Most of us regularly make the crucial mistake of confusing hearing with listening. Often in our effort to problem solve or empathize in conversations, we hear words and quickly create a narrative colored by our feelings, thoughts, assumptions, or judgments. This narrative, more often than not, creates an ego-centered response to what others share with us. We envision previous experiences that felt similar to what they were sharing. Or many of us are guilty of shifting to “fix-it” mode. How can I help? How can I resolve the issue?  Many of us are unknowingly but justifiably bad at listening. Not because of any malicious intent or lack of respect for the people we are sharing space with, but because we were never taught how to listen well.

Learning to listen is critical to our lives both personally and professionally, especially in the areas we are leading or working with others.  Though “85% of what we know we have learned through listening,” it remains a deeply underdeveloped and unexplored skill for so many of us.  According to Forbes, human beings generally listen at a 25% comprehension rate, and less than 2% of all professionals have had formal training to understand and improve their listening skills and techniques.  On a typical business day, we spend 45% of our time listening, 30% of our time talking, 16% reading and 9% writing.

Listening is a skill that like weightlifting must be honed through consistent practice and proper technique. According to Harvard Business Review’s “Listening to People” by…, “to be good listeners we must apply certain skills that are acquired through either experience or training. If a person has not acquired these listening skills, his ability to understand and retain what he hears will be low.”

So, how can we listen more effectively?

There are a few different frameworks that can be supportive in practicing listening. This one below comes from our collaborative work with Sharon Bueno Washington. It is not a cycle or series of steps so much as all of the practices that must be attended to in dialogue that is rooted in intentional listening.

The External (often observable) Behaviors of Listening in Conversation:

Active Listening: Making a conscious effort to be present in our bodies and to hear the full messages being shared. It requires that we give our full attention not only to the content being communicated but also to the meanings, feelings, body language, and context being communicated to us.

Seeking to Understand: To discover what someone is Really sharing with us, we expand the conversation by asking open, honest questions. This requires Both that we seek to understand and that we have a willingness to be changed by what we learn.

Speaking from “I”: To listen to others often requires that we also are vulnerable in sharing the truth of our own personal experiences. In doing so, we listen to ourselves, and We can then speak using ‘I’ statements. Speaking with “I” Honors the reality that our experience may be one part of a larger reality or truth that we seek to understand together Through Dialogue.

The Internal (often unobservable) Behaviors of Listening in Conversation

Awareness of Assumptions: Doing the inner work of uncovering the beliefs that underlie our opinions; of getting curious about how our bias informs What we’re hearing; and of allowing our assumptions to be challenged as we seek to understand. If we don’t want to understand, listening is purely performative.

Pausing on Judgment: Putting aside our drive to assess, diagnose, or judge others. There may be times when our expertise in assessment, diagnosis, or judgment is called upon or necessary, but truly listening is about pausing judgment until we’ve developed enough understanding and/or clarity to guide a discerning use of our assessment.

Remembering the Whole: Grounding ourselves in why we are practicing listening and noticing all the elements of what is unfolding. Remembering the whole might mean connecting to our purpose and values, noticing themes and patterns, zooming in and out of the details, or identifying all of the people, places, and things that are influencing us and others in the conversation.

So, what’s in it for me?

Consider how it feels when you feel listened to with intention. Consider how it feels when you feel unlistened to or misunderstood. Intuitively, we can understand the importance of having colleagues and team members who feel listened to, who feel heard. But often the protests come when people consider how much time and effort it will take–time and effort they say they don’t have. Consider listening as preventative, helping avoid misunderstandings, conflicts, resentments, and misalignments from taking up too much time. Imagine the impact of a group of people who feel valued, trust they can say what they need to say, know their perspective matters, and are regularly practicing listening themselves. If to exercise leadership, as scholar Ronald Heifetz says, means to be “orchestrating the process of getting factions with competing definitions of the problem to start learning from one another,” then we leaders definitely need to learn how to listen more intentionally.

As I learned to leverage the power of active listening, I created the space for my sister to feel heard, valued, and appreciated. By listening, I connected with my sister at a deeper, more meaningful level. She’s been able to reveal herself to me more openly, she’s unafraid to show me her vulnerabilities, and her  hopes and fears, joys and excitements in life. In our personal and professional lives, active and empathetic listening allows us to develop self-awareness and an understanding of others.

Practicing Play

As children, play is both how we learn and how we build relationships. Play supports us in connecting with others, experimenting with ideas, and finding our place in the world.

Too many of us lose our ability to play along the way: whether we forget how, get embarrassed about it, or just can’t find the time. Our athletic games turn into health and weight loss activities with metrics and goals; the time for imagination and story-telling disappears in pursuit of work; we turn to substances to “have fun” rather than exploring other ways of embracing our free time; or perhaps we reserve play for vacations only.

Experiencing the light-heartedness of play, even for a short time, frees up our energy, shifts our perspective, and offers space for seeing ourselves as whole beings. Play often invites us into a celebration or savoring of the ordinary and small joys of life.

Leaders need to make time for real play to take themselves less seriously and loosen up every now and then.

Hopefully we all know the people in our lives with whom we can play. Maybe you find time to play with the kids in your life, with friends with whom you feel the kind of safety and trust that you can let down your guard, with your family members, or with your partner.

When’s the last time you really played?

If you find yourself searching back to months or years ago, what might you do to be more intentional about play in your life? Play can mean all sorts of activities. Consider carving out time for:

  • Creating art for enjoyment alone in the process of playful creation not for the perfect product (making a painting, drawing, collage, music, etc).
  • Playing cards, board games, or outdoor games (go fish, tag, chase, kickball, etc).
  • Creating skits or telling made-up stories just for fun.
  • Playing anything with kids to bring out your inner child: bubbles, drawing, hide and seek, dress-up.
  • Playing in nature (swimming, fishing, hiking, flying a kite, dancing on a beach, etc).
A regular play practice or hobby will help you:
  • Loosen up.
  • Break out of stuck-ness.
  • Feel joy.
  • Tap creativity.
  • Reconnect with childlike wonder.
  • Gain fresh perspective.
  • Learn about yourself.
  • Have fun in a healthy way!
Set an intention for yourself today. What will you do to play this week? Notice how it feels (and if it is awkward at first or someone makes fun of you, work through it by grounding in your intention or by finding the kind of play that opens you up).

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