Have you ever walked away from a conversation wondering how it could have turned out so badly? You started with the best intentions. To listen. And then everything seemed to unravel. Worst yet, you later learn that you have a reputation as a poor listener.
There's an important distinction between hearing and listening. To hear is about channelling and receiving input. Listening gives meaning to that input. Hearing is to listening as drum beats are to rhythm. Listening takes those raw beats and moves them to deeper meaning. Rhythm speaks to each person differently, reflective of how deeply they are listening.
It's fair to say that listening is a skill that many people take for granted. They treat listening as a passive activity. One common belief is: I must be listening if I'm not talking. We all know that's not true. Even when you mouth is shut, you're often planning what you are going to say next... rather than absorbing another view.
Many people don't listen to learn. They listen instead to refute.
The other side of the coin
It's pretty common to describe a 'good communicator' as a person with strong verbal skills. In fact, many training programs that teach communication skills focus heavily on how to talk, and rarely on how to listen. Talking and listening are two sides of the same coin. But when we flip that coin, it is often weighted heavier on one side - the side that favours talking.
If you want to communicate better, it may be time to do a re-frame on what it means to really listen to someone.
Many people treat listening as a passive activity. It is about so much more than simply closing your mouth. Listening is a skill that requires you to engage actively in the conversation, even if you aren't the person who's talking.
You'll never be a good listener if you have nothing to learn. You can't be influenced to see things differently if you don't believe there's anything to learn from another person... or from the team. Relationships stay at a superficial level when people don't take the time to understand each other, or show very little interest in each other's views.
At its worst, a business meeting may sound more like a political debate rather than a forum for open dialogue. When you're debating with another person, your goal is to get them to see things your way. Success is defined as getting that person to agree with you. On the other hand, dialogue is about building on each other's ideas, with less focus on who's right or wrong and more emphasis on the best ideas.
In pure debate, you listen to refute. In pure dialogue, you listen to learn. When people engage with you in conversation, do they experience someone who is open or closed? Helpful or unhelpful? If your goal is to be a better teammate, you don't want to leave these questions to chance.
Six ways to listen
Think about active listening as switching between channels on a television, where you listen with a different ear depending on what's required in the conversation. The ability to switch channels is especially helpful when someone at work asks you to help them think through something difficult or complex. In fact, get good at asking the question: How do you want me to listen?
1. Listening with compassion
This listening style may be the hardest because it requires you to do very little talking. When a person asks you to listen, don't assume that they need you to do anything, or fix anything for them.
The person isn't helpless, so don't enable helpless behaviour by assuming that you have to do anything other than listen. Sometimes all another person wants you to do is just listen. All they want is for you to hear how they feel. Not to solve or do anything. Just listen.
"That must have been tough" is what listening with compassion sounds like. It signals to the person that you have connected to what it must be like from their point of view.
2. Listening to reflect
This style is more active than listening with compassion. When you listen to reflect, you are serving as a mirror to the person - who sometimes is too close to a situation to really hear how they are coming across to other people.
Your role is to play the person's words back to them, so they can hear it in a way that you're hearing it. Is this what you really mean? You sound pretty extreme in your position - is that how you really feel about it?
When you're that person's mirror, it helps them to recalibrate around whether they need to soften or amplify their position.
3. Listening for assumptions
This listening style requires you to listen intently because you are trying to pull out every assumption that you think might be worth testing. The person should give you permission to listen on this frequency, only because it can sound like nit-picking otherwise.
Before you pitch an idea to the team, you should first ask someone to listen to your spiel and jot down all the things that you seem to have taken for granted. Sometimes you are too close to your own thinking to hear things that your audience will hear.What you take as a given may not be the case to somebody sitting in the audience.
An example of listening for assumptions would be: It sounds like you think our older customers won't mind the shift to younger styles - is that a fair assumption? Questions like this will slow the conversation down, but may save the team months of clean-up if an assumption is faulty.
4. Listening as the contrarian
You really have to get permission from the speaker before you try to help them as the contrarian.T his style gives you permission to listen as the opposition - and to hit back at them with all the holes you hear in their argument. You can see why this would be a testy way to listen if you don't clarify your intent.
You especially want to assign someone to listen as the contrarian if the team tends to have safe and cautious conversations. The contrarian can then bring out things that might otherwise go unspoken.
The contrarian is also a good listening style to use when the team seems to rush to decisions too quickly without vetting all possible risks. When you listen from the opposing side and say to the team, "This won't cut the mustard and here's why," it helps them to build a better argument.
5. Listening for balance
If you're in a conversation with a person who sees the glass half full, you may help them if you listen from the vantage of a person who sees that same glass as half empty and then infuse that perspective into the conversation. In another example, a business team that makes decisions largely on gut feel will sometimes need to be grounded in hard cold facts about the way things are. Balance comes in many forms and shapes.
There are countless polarities that often get skewed in one direction or the other. It helps if someone on the team plays an active role to make sure that there is no gaping hole caused by some view point that is missing.
Listening for balance is especially helpful if a person is rigidly locked onto a position, or the team is full of people who think in one particular way. Balance keeps the team from being led off course by unbridled passion that has become skewed.
6. Listening for the system
Sometimes on a team, everyone seems to listen while wearing their own functional hats, while no one listens to hear how the whole system is impacted. It's not a good feeling when the team starts to pull apart the whole pie and hold onto the individual slices like precious gold.
It helps if you ask someone on the team to listen for the system, which gives that person permission to raise important questions about how the 'whole' will be affected by a decision. This listening style is especially important when there are people missing from the conversation, yet they will be affected by any decision that gets made.
Pulling the six styles together
Which listening style is needed when may change as quickly as the view inside a kaleidoscope in motion. Listening is a dynamic activity, requiring an acute awareness for when it's time to switch gears and ask if it would be helpful to listen in another mode.
Get used to asking the question: How do you want me to listen? It can get you out of the dog house as a poor listener... at work and at home.