Thursday, January 5, 2017

Are You Listening?


Great leaders are great communicators, and great communicators are great listeners. 

Are You Listening?

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
- Robert McCloskey

If you've ever found yourself shaking your head and saying "They just don't get it." and "I may as well be talking to a wall." Then it might be time to take a look at your own listening skills.

"Listening?" you respond, "THEY'RE the ones not LISTENING." Really? If you're the boss or if you have a specific agenda that you want understood, who should be the better listener? 

Miscommunication is often the product of the unconscious assumption that others have the same experience and understanding as you do. In most cases, that's just not true. Each of us has unique experience, cultural background, education, motivation, desires and needs. You and your partner may both speak English (which, as a second language, presents another layer of challenge), but each word is colored by your specific work and life contexts.

Leaders, managers and anyone who needs to influence (especially without authority) has a coaching role, and coaching requires deep listening skills, often called "committed listening" skills. Committed listening is listening to understand others' needs and desires with the goal of putting yourself into their frame of reference. Listening should make others feel that someone understands them - a deep human need and one of the foundations of trust.

Most of us have average listening skills. We have our preoccupations and agendas and we get caught up in our own feelings and - yes - we take things personally. Why, then, should you ASSUME a common language, let alone common motivations and goals?

There are plenty of barriers to committed listening:

  • Preparing to respond instead of listening without judging
  • Zoning out when others speak, one-on- one and in meetings
  • Interrupting others when they speak
  • "Knowing" what you want to hear
  • "Knowing" what you're going to hear
  • Assuming what is meant without asking or confirming
  • Listening for confirmation rather than information


By listening closely to others you'll discover that beliefs and assumptions are present in everything we humans say and do. If you can hear them, you can address them. For example, how would you interpret the following statement in a team meeting?

"The problem is that we can't move forward until leadership makes a decision about our next step."

Some possible translations are:

  • The team has no power to move forward.
  • If management doesn't see what we're doing as urgent, then why should I?
  • It is not our job to set direction.


There are many other interpretations, and every one needs confirmation, but there is much more information here than is evident from the words alone. How would you react? Here are some suggestions:

1) Ask questions without challenging, for example:

  • What can we act on right now?
  • What's the best decision that we can make? 


2) Ask questions that illicit governing values, such as:

  • What if we went with the best information we have now? Could we be effective?
  • What's the worst that could happen if we get it wrong?


3) Suspend judgment, without agreeing or disagreeing:

  • What is the team's decision-making role?
  • How would you handle it?
  • What information does the leadership have that we don't?


Notice, you're not giving advice or direction. By asking questions you coach others to think clearly through unresolved issues and to discover the solutions they have inside of them already. You also encourage accountability. Giving advice removes accountability and places it on the adviser.

How can you be a better listener?

  • Commit to improve your listening skills and to take responsibility for full and clear communication in every interaction from now on.
  • "Voice echo" to yourself what you hear as you hear it without judging.
  • At the end of each conversation, take a moment to tell your partner you appreciate what they said and then reflect it back, with the goal that the partner corrects your report until they agree that you understand.
  • Don't be offended or discouraged by feedback that says "You just don't get it." Most people don't communicate well. Allow for that and ask clarifying questions until you DO get it.
  • Keep a listening journal, noting when you do a good job of listening, and when it goes wrong, why and what you'll do differently next time.
  • Look for patterns that derail you, like particular people or topics that don't interest you.

  • Enlist someone you trust to offer support. Call on them if you find yourself stuck or unable to overcome distractions or break inattentive patterns.
Answer the questions:

1) When did I listen attentively? How can I tell?
2) When did I stop listening to the meeting or conversation?
3) What distracted me from listening to the conversation or meeting?


As Stephen Covey said in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Be the one who opens the truly collaborative dialog and watch your influence grow with your effectiveness.

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