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.
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