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The crucial skill that nobody teaches

How many really good listeners do you know? Could you list, say, three? Some of the people I ask struggle to name a single one.

Nowadays, we have an excuse for not listening well. We have little time and our concentration has been destroyed by a million interruptions.

But in fact, humans have always been bad listeners. A little thing called our ‘ego’ gets in the way. We’re not really very interested in other people; only in ourselves. Which means that we’re not listening; we’re waiting to talk.

Listening isn’t just rare – it’s also important. It’s particularly important in the context of business, where so much depends on co-ordination. When were you last at a meeting where there was an atmosphere of rapt attention?

So who teaches it? It’s important, it’s rare… but have you ever been on a listening course?

There is an organisation which teaches it very well: Samaritans, the helpline for people in distress. Of course, their training is for volunteers and not for business people; and they’re focusing on a particular kind of listening.

The skills need a wider audience. So I’ve modified their approach for a business environment. Here’s a summary of how to take your listening to a powerful new level.

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Firstly, here are three hints for getting into the right state for listening.

  • Engage your curiosity. If you’re going to hear what the other person has to say, you need to focus on what they say and how they say it. That’s much easier if you genuinely want to find out what they’re telling you.
  • Temporarily set aside your ego. The biggest step towards great listening is humility. Forgo any temptation to talk about yourself or to tell stories of what happened to you.
  • Don’t be afraid of silences. People do their best thinking when it’s quiet. Let your mind go quiet too – become one step removed from the usual mental chatter. The silence can move you to new depths of thought and interaction.

Secondly, here’s an adapted version of what Samaritans call the Listening Wheel. As the name implies, it’s a circle, and you may need to go round this more than once during a conversation.

  1. Ask an open question. As you probably know, closed questions are answered by yes/no/red/blue. Such questions are useful for checking facts or getting decisions. But to find out what someone’s really thinking, open questions are much better. They typically start with “why…?” or “tell me more about…” or “what else…” A great question from the discipline of Clean Language is “what would you like to have happen?”
  2. Listen to the answer. Obvious, of course, but often we forget to do this. Perhaps because we’re congratulating ourselves on our last question or formulating the next one. Listening also means watching. Widen your attention to take in the words, the tone and the body language.
  3. Show that you’re listening. You can do this with sounds and gestures and stillness and judicious eye-contact.
  4. Prompt for clarification by repeating key words. Don’t paraphrase, use the same words that they do. Words and metaphors have subjective significance for people, so don’t try and find better words for them. Just repeat them: “you said the phone call was excruciating… could you say a bit more about that?”
  5. Empathise. If the other person has expressed any feelings, then a very quick and profound way to break down any barriers is to empathise with those feelings. If not, ask an open question – “how did that make you feel?” for example. Then you can empathise with their frustration, or anger, or delight, whatever it is. It’s better to say “gosh, yes, that must have been infuriating” than “I can imagine”… because you can’t, necessarily.
  6. If and when appropriate, respond to the key points. When you sense that the other person has had their say, you might want to ask “is it okay if I respond to the issue of …?” But whatever you do, don’t break the spell…

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This is relatively easy to practise in one-to-one conversations. The other party doesn’t even need to be aware that you’re practising anything; they’ll just sense that you’re a good listener.

It’s more difficult in meetings. You may want to make the need for better listening explicit and share these guidelines with your colleagues… On which note…

If you’d like a simple one-page graphical summary of this, it’s yours. Just download it from here.

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