Being aware of our ways of listening can transform our conversations and therefore our impact.
A mentor of mine from many years ago used to ask me ‘Lucy, when you are with a client, what are you listening for?’
Listening is not just listening. If you add a different purpose to your listening, you hear different things. We don’t listen like a dictaphone, with no agenda but to receive and record. What we bring to our listening affects what we hear and therefore what we do next.
Are you listening to find fault?
Are you listening to praise?
Are you listening for sense?
Are you listening for feelings?
Are you listening for what someone means?
Are you listening for what someone wants?
Are you listening to influence someone?
Are you listening to be influenced by someone?
One of my clients likes the shorthand of head, heart and soul – which one are you listening with?
Bill Isaac’s Book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together is still, for me, one of the most useful works of reference for leaders interested in more fruitful executive discussions. The quality of decisions made after applying some of Bill’s ‘rules’ is, in my experience, greatly enhanced. These rules include listening for the coherence in what people are saying even if you have to work hard to find it, assuming positive intent on the part of the speaker and respecting and being willing to be influenced by what you hear (not just waiting for a gap to get your word in). Sonia Nevis, a great family therapist, used to say that healthy families know how to ask each other questions, wait for the answers, and then let each other know how they’ve been impacted by what they’ve heard. Studies have shown that doctors interrupt patients between 11 and 18 seconds after they begin to speak.
Leaders’ awareness not just of whether they are listening, how long they are listening but also how they are listening can be a turning point in their key relationships.
I want to thank my colleague Tim Watson for introducing me to the following quote about listening from William Stringfellow.
Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance, or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives oneself to another’s word, making oneself accessible and vulnerable to that word.