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 excellent at listening.  

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, stifling 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 sharing with me than 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 Ralph G. Nichols and  Leonard A. Stevens, “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.

If you’d like more expert leadership insights and resources, check out The Rootwise Method, our foundational interactive course to help you bring your full potential to your role. This course will meet you right where you are, inviting you to tap into your own wisdom so that you can get what you most want our of life and work. 

On Building Trust

Google study on what makes certain teams work better than others showed that the number one factor that makes teams effective is simple: psychological and emotional safety. So, how do you establish more emotional safety and TRUST in your workplace?

1) Create small reminders that you work with humans, not robots:
The notion that we need to separate personal life from work life is proving ineffective and false. When people like their colleagues, they work harder and smarter. A simple exercise like sharing one thing from your weekend, or a one word mood check in during team meetings, can open the door for deeper bonds to form and emotional safety to be created over time.

2) Be honest about fears and failures, without shame:
If you tell a colleague you’re struggling with a project, do you believe you’ll receive support or reprimand and judgment? Create a culture where vulnerability is affirmed and even celebrated. Make it fun! Some teams use a “I was wrong Gong” or “Failure Hall of Fame” to create shared humor and openness around failure and struggle, rather than a culture based on the pressure to be perfect or on shame when mistakes are made.

3) Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate:
Simply put, we are more likely to trust others when we feel seen and appreciated ourselves. When was the last time you appreciated someone at work? Take a minute right now to write down three people you will show appreciation this week. And then do it… be specific. Trust me, it will make you feel great too.

Get coaching and training on building trust and the other conditions needed for collective leadership to thrive by enrolling in The Collective Leadership Certificate Program today!

The Path to Resilience

Having to integrate and heal following challenge, stress, tragedy, or loss is naturally an emotionally painful process. Each of us must discover our own ways to move through distress to resilience, and yet, life calls us to resilience if we listen.

Resilience is not simply about about getting rid of the pain we experience quickly (though many may want you to confuse this kind of psychological toughness with resilience). The movement toward resilience is a movement toward wholeness through understanding.

Sources of resilience

Our intuitive ability to move towards wholeness is strengthened and renewed by:
  1. RELATIONSHIP: Loving, supportive, and trusting relationships and communities.
  2. FAITH (PURPOSE): Confidence and trust in ourselves, others, and life itself.
  3. ACTION: Our ability to communicate our feelings and needs, to take action, to ask for help, and to set boundaries appropriately as needed.
These are renewable sources of resilience that can be sought out, cultivated, learned, and practiced every day. You might begin by reflecting on your sources (no matter how big or small they might be):
  • I have… Who are the people, places, and communities that nourish me?
  • I am… What are the beliefs, values, and mindsets that give me strength and hope and connection?
  • I can… What are the choices, actions, words, and skills that help me navigate difficulty?
Organizations, communities, and institutions can tap into these sources of resilience just as individuals can: “We have…” “We are…” “We can…” That said, our dominant culture, by and large, does not focus on promoting these renewable sources of resilience for everyone and certainly does not include everyone in defining the “we” of collective resilience.

Therefore, practicing resilience in community or organizational settings requires embracing everyone’s experiences and seeking to transform the culture to cultivate sources of resilience for all and include all when defining “we”. This practice requires embracing the centrality of each individual experience in making up the collective experience AND the impact of the collective culture on each individual. No one else can tell you how to adapt towards wholeness AND you are not separate from the culture of systems and institutions you belong to.

The best ways to launch pathways to resilience as a leader both personally and within your organization is to focus on the work of cultivating connection, trust, communication (priorities, boundaries, needs), and agency.

Finding flexibility and balance

Resilience can be paradoxical. It’s built upon a balancing of honoring the complexity of human needs in the dynamic reality of our existence. Holding resilience work in gentle, flexible balance is essential to lovingly guiding yourself and your organizations on the path to resilience. Resilience as a priority asks us to listen, to be present, to meet the moment, honor the need, and to flow. How can you flow towards wholeness?

Consider this from the American Psychological Association:

“Resilience involves maintaining flexibility and balance in your life as you deal with stressful circumstances and traumatic events. This happens in several ways, including:

  • Letting yourself experience strong emotions, and also realizing when you may need to avoid experiencing them at times in order to continue functioning.
  • Stepping forward and taking action to deal with your problems and meet the demands of daily living, and also stepping back to rest and reenergize yourself.
  • Spending time with loved ones to gain support and encouragement, and also nurturing yourself.
  • Relying on others, and also relying on yourself.”

Consider the importance of nimble both/and strategies to meet yourself and others in your needs as you seek to bring intention to developing rivers of resilience that flow from deep sources of relationship, faith, and action.

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