I know a few people who are natural listeners.
These individuals seem to possess an inner stillness and natural curiosity that enables them to intuitively grasp another’s content, meaning and feelings. They listen not only with their ears, but with their eyes, heads and hearts.
When in the presence of an exquisite listener, a speaker is likely to feel tremendous freedom, greater clarity and emotional relief. In a relatively short period of time, tightness, confusion and isolation can be moderated, simply by being listened to.
Despite these benefits, listening is becoming not only rare, but devalued. Most leaders I know function as if they believe their words are more important than what others have to say.
Increasingly, we leave no time to listen. In a fast-paced and often frantic society, who’s interested in stopping the busyness long enough to really tune in to someone else?
I want to confess that I do not belong to the Natural Listeners Club. I have to work at it. Every day. And even when I concentrate, I catch myself making the usual listening mistakes:
- Wandering away from the speaker by getting lost in my own thoughts.
- Rehearsing to myself what I am about to say, while the other is talking.
- Interrupting so I won’t forget my thought, and because I think it’s brilliant.
- Listening for a point of disagreement that I can pounce on.
- Cutting someone off because I’m in a hurry, sometimes finishing their sentences due to impatience.
To counter these automatic, selfish tendencies, I decided a while back to re-invent my listening practice. Here are four ideas and strategies that have become useful to me:
1. Listen to My Self
If I cannot pay attention to myself, how in the world will I ever be able to listen to another? As fast as I move from meeting to meeting, I’ve discovered that I move even faster inside my brain. Is there a way for me to calm down?How can I drop the preoccupations and be present, right here, right now? What’s going on with me at this moment?
I have spoken with numerous colleagues and friends who meditate, reflect, pray, journal, use neurofeedback or walk outside. The common denominator in these practices is “quieting the mind.” The rule of “one size fits one” operates here: each must discover for themselves how to “quiet the mind.” The desired outcome is improving my ability to stay calm and focused.
No matter what method I use to slow down and prepare to receive another, it sets me up to be a better listener.
2. Develop an Intention
What’s a bigger challenge: knowing HOW to listen, or WANTING to listen?
I try to begin my interactions with a simple, internal intention to listen. Developing that intention changes my mindset. It’s simply the case that I listen better when I INTEND to listen.
Here are some specific intentions I whisper to myself as I prepare for a discussion:
- “I want to learn as much as I can about this person.”
- “I want to observe and hear what is going on with her.”
- “I want to take in what he’s communicating to me.”
- “I want to get as much detail as I can and not jump to conclusions.”
3. Pause Before Responding
After the speaker finishes a thought, an intentional, few-seconds delay “holds” what has just been said, as if in a sacred vessel. By slowing the pace of the exchange, pausing:
- Regulates reactivity impulses while expanding the emotional space for connecting
- Enables deeper understanding of the message
- Supplies the space for formulating a thoughtful response
4. Communicate, “I’m hearing you”
It’s important for me to let the other know that I am paying attention to them and hearing their message (which might be a thought, a feeling, a complaint or a question).
The “I’m hearing you” message can be sent verbally, vocally or visually, for example:
- Making eye contact
- Taking notes
- Deleting distractions
- Reflecting back to the speaker what you are hearing
- Verbally articulating, “I hear you,” “I’m following you,” etc.
- Inserting vocalizations that express attentiveness, e.g.. “hmmm…
Listening attentively establishes an important foundation for coaching. I’ve found that when I listen well, whatever I say after that seems to be considered more carefully by the person I listened to.
In that way, robust listening helps credibility as well as understanding.
Can any coaching strategy be more important than that?