We’ve all heard that we should listen more than we talk. In fact, it has become almost as cliché as, “an apple a day…” Do I even need to finish the sentence? We get this advice as managers, employees, parents and children. And while it’s good advice for everyone, it seems like those of us in positions of authority are most often reminded that we aren’t doing it enough.
We yearn to feel closer to our kids or more effective as managers. Giving our full attention is the best, fastest way to connection with another human being. When we set aside everything else and just focus on them, people feel heard, understood and valued. It is the single biggest thing that you can do to create alignment within your team or your family.
Listening fully is not just hearing another person’s words; it means hearing their intent as well. To do this, we have to be attuned to their body language, their tone, their facial expressions as well as the words they use. True listening is listening with the whole body. When we are listening like that, our empathy is engaged and we will mirror the other person with our body position, eye contact and tone. Unconsciously both parties sense this mirroring and that’s the foundation of the connection you’re building.
True listening is the basis for good management of other. Good listeners are genuinely curious, asking what is needed from them rather than telling others what to do. Listening allows an opportunity to praise sound decisions and to replace criticizing with problem-solving. Listening is an act of respect that tells the other person that you value what they think and feel and it shows faith in their ability to talk through difficult issues.
With all the clear benefits, you’d think we’d be a nation of listeners. Yet, research shows that those in positions of authority tend to interrupt and take over the conversation after just 16 seconds on average. How well do you do? Time yourself; you might be surprised. So, if engaged listening is so important, why don’t we do more of it? There are actually several reasons and each must be addressed if we are going to become world-class listeners.
The first reason is fairly obvious. We are simply too busy. You have a stack of calls to return, reports to complete, meetings to attend, and emails, emails, emails. It never ends and now you have someone in your office cutting into your already overwhelmed schedule. So, with one eye on your computer and one on the clock, you give them a few seconds to talk, cut them off, bottom line what you think you heard, offer a solution and send them out the door. Sound familiar?
This is just as true of parents, who are so busy getting kids to and from practice, getting dinner ready, and managed the details of their families’ lives that they never have time for the substance underneath those details.
The first step to good listening is to make the commitment and then make it a priority. Make sure you set uninterrupted time aside every week for each person in your world, so that they know they can bring issues to you during that time and have your undivided attention. During that time, turn off your computer screen, turn off your cell, take your desk phone of the hook; be completely there for that person. Also, be proactive and create padding in your calendar to allow for the occasional drop-in. Making time when things are starting to smolder, will save you from having to put out fires later.
However, managing your time is not the whole answer. If it was, you could all make a few clicks on your Google calendar and we’d be done. Yet, even when they have the time, many people struggle to give their full attention. Their minds are racing about what else they have to do or what advice they want to give. That’s because bad listening is also a habit. A habit is formed when a behavior becomes so rote that it descends from the conscious mind into the unconscious. Habits, like driving a car, get stored in our basal ganglia, where we don’t need to consciously recall them.
This is a critical process; can you imagine if you always drove the way you did the first time you got behind the wheel: “What side is the turn signal on again?”, “Where is first gear?”, “How much pressure do I apply to the break?” Habits help us survive but they can sometimes be a hindrance and breaking a habit is tricky. It requires us to retrain our brains to bring the unconscious back into the prefrontal cortex where we can gain mastery over it.
So, a commitment to listening requires a commitment to retraining our brains. We must become mindful of forming a new habit every day. Set an intention for yourself that this is going to be one of your priorities and find ways to trigger your conscious mind throughout the day. Put a sticky note on your computer or schedule an alarm that beeps during the day; tailor the plan to meet your needs. Every time we get triggered to think about our intention to change the habit, we are bringing it into our conscious mind and that helps to retrain the brain. Like learning how to wear a seat belt, it will first feel like a hassle but will eventually become as second nature as the rest of the driving experience.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle to becoming better listeners is that we don’t really want to; we think we do but we really don’t. Truly empathic, intent listening requires us to get out of the way. Yet, if we are really honest with ourselves, when we listen, we listen for opportunities to talk. The conversation becomes about us instead of them.
We might think of a similar experience and want to share it, more because it allows us to reminisce than because it has any value for the other person. Our values might get triggered and we feel the need to share our disagreement. Often, we just want to give advice. Advice is tricky because we think we are doing it for their benefit but usually it’s for ours. Either we believe we know better (“I’m the expert”) or we’re anxious to add value (“if I don’t solve this for him/her, then I’m not helpful”).
Yet, the empathic listening is the true value. When we are genuinely paying attention to the person, with no agenda of our own, we keep them talking, instead of doing it ourselves. We don’t problem solve for them, we problem solve with them by asking questions that allow them to explore solutions themselves. We prompt and encourage, rather than tell or instruct. This requires us to accept that they may come up with different solutions than ours. If they own the solutions, they will be more invested, even if it isn’t quite as practical, fast, efficient, etc. as yours might have been. Mastering the art of letting go is a critical step in good listening.
Becoming a champion listener means mastering each of these obstacles: prioritize the people in your life and make time for them in your calendar, create a new habit around being an active listener, and confront your own reasons for not listening so that you are more self-aware and can take personal needs out of the equation.