Are you really listening? Or are you thinking of your next response?

Are you really listening or are you thinking of your next response?

What do you do more of — listen or talk? And when you are listening, do you hear what the other person is saying or do you hear what you want to hear to inform your next response?

The same way most of us think we’re good drivers, we tend also to think we’re pretty good listeners. Most of our lives we remain blissfully ignorant about the art of truly great listening. Think of a time when someone really listened to you, I don’t mean sitting there nodding silently at you — instead someone who was truly present, interested and engaged.

How good did it make you feel? It doesn’t happen often but when it does, not only is it a great feeling but it can be very motivating. It’s no surprise that the great listeners bring out the best in us nor that those employees who feel listened to are more engaged, more confident and more productive.

Why then are so many of us so bad at listening?

Active listening

Good listening is sometimes called active listening. Among others, active listening means not forming responses, views or judgement before someone is finished. How often have you sat in a meeting with a client or colleagues and while someone is telling you a story you start forming an opinion about what you think they are about to say or where you think they are going and it then turns out to be something completely different?

In their article “What Great Listeners Actually Do’ in the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman give an example of 3,492 managers on a development program designed to make them better coaches and who among them was perceived as the most effective listeners; it produced some surprising results.

What good listeners do

Contrary to what a lot of literature says on the topic, the people in this study felt the best listeners weren’t the ones who stayed silent, but those who ‘asked questions that promote discovery and insight’. In other words good listening was seen as two way dialogue.

The research found that the best conversations were active, and good listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other person. Those that did this also did a number of other things:

  • They weren’t competitive i.e. they didn’t try find mistakes or errors in reasoning or logic and they certainly did not spend the time listening so they could prepare a response to show how clever they were
  • They challenged assumptions and disagreed, but the listener felt they did it in a way that was helpful and not to win the argument
  • Their feedback opened alternative thoughts for consideration i.e. they didn’t jump in to solve the problem
  • Ultimately good listeners amplified, energised and helped clarify the talkers thinking.

The no no’s of good listening

Even the best listeners have off days and for those that will never be good listeners…let’s just say they need to realise it’s not all about them. Some of the listening no no’s:

  1. Never assume you know or understand the problem before the teller has articulated it fully and you have done your best to help them do so.
  2. Confirmation bias i.e. don’t only focus on those parts of the story that confirm or validate your point of view or pre-conceived idea.
  3. Having anything like a mobile phone, laptop, worry beads, clicking pen in reach or worse still looking at them while someone is talking.
  4. Not making eye contact — but be sure that the culture in which you’re operating accepts this. In some cultures it is rude to look a superior in the eye when they are telling you something.
  5. Interrupting with your point of view all the time. Rather try asking questions such as: “Is there anything more you’d like to say about…”, “Is that all…”, “Why do you think that happened…” etc. Much like unpeeling the onion, people will tell you something yet only when you ask these types of questions will the full story come out or they will reveal important details that give a deeper understanding of the issue.
  6. Minimising the issue or their concerns — at best this could be seen as patronising, at worse, you don’t care enough about their problem.
  7. Passing judgment — the last thing the teller wants is for you to pass judgement on their decision or their character.

Good listening is hard. Personally I’m still working at it and I still have a way to go.

I’ve been a PR consultant for 28 years, and have finally woken up to the fact that listening and asking the right questions is a far better way to consult than jumping in too quickly with opinions or advice. Sure, that is sometimes what my client wants, but if I listen properly I’ll hear them ask for it. Most of the time they want to tell me about their issue or their new service or product.

Have you woken up to the power of active listening yet?


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