Why is listening so important?
Listening is one of those skills that on some level most people think they could be a bit better at. Even people who are paid professionally to listen are aware that really listening with full attention, without interruption and without giving advice or inputting solutions is really hard. Yet very few of us are actually taught how to listen well or why it matters.
Listening is a really powerful way of connecting meaningfully with people. It's only when we're connected with people that they will think well for themselves. When the other person senses our interest and our ease, they're more likely (and more able) to think clearly, creatively and without fear. Without connection people won't feel safe enough to show up authentically and to share their thoughts.
Everyone is capable of thinking really well for themselves, it's just unfortunate that not many of us are given the chance to. If you improve your ability to listen you create the conditions for every person around you to thrive.
But I'm listening all the time, aren't I?
Yes, listening is occurring all of the time but we can choose to listen in a number of different ways. Each of these has a place and it's not that any one is inherently good or bad but rather it's about being more conscious and skilled at knowing when to use each.
Level 1 - "Listening on the periphery"
You're listening to someone else but your mind is on a completely different topic. We have an amazing ability to listen to a conversation or a presentation and yet our mind can be on something else entirely. If called upon, we can still respond but we are really not paying that much attention.
Level 2 - "Queued up waiting to talk listening"
You're engaged with the other person, you're interested in the subject and are focused on the conversation. Your mind is very much focused internally asking 'so what'? What does this mean for me or my team? What question do I need to ask next? What information do I need to provide? You might want to ask clarifying questions. The urge to interrupt is great. We listen as long as necessary until we can get our view across.
Level 3 - "Listening to reply"
You're focused fully on the other person, listening not just to the words but also for the feelings. You're not easily distracted and you're paying really good attention. The focus is on the other person but we are still listening in order to reply to the other person. We listen just long enough to say something. We listen in order to speak and we place our value on what we have to say.
Level 4 - "Listening to ignite"
This is listening to connect. To ignite. To liberate. To generate the thinking of someone else. This is the kind of listening we crave for and value. Listening to someone to ignite their thinking is a gift, it's both generous and generative. You listen not to reply, but to allow the other person to think. The power of your attention, of your palpable, warm interest and your connection liberates their thinking. The people that listen to us in this way are the people we value the most - for they allow us to think for ourselves...to be fully ourselves...to grow and to thrive. We flourish when we are listened to this way.
3 simple tips to transform your listening:
1. Stop interrupting:
My number one tip to improve your listening is really simple and yet incredibly hard to do - stop interrupting people. That’s it. Allow each person the time and space to finish their thought before inputting yours.
Why do we interrupt? There are many reasons: for some people, and this is a small percentage, they think that what they have to say is more important than what you are trying to think.
A lot of us interrupt because we are excited by the content and we want to show empathy with the other person. We worry that we might forget our point if we don’t speak or we might know that unless we interrupt we will not be asked for our opinion.
All of these reasons are valid but when we are trying to think afresh about something any input which has not been invited is a form of interruption and means our thinking will be affected.
Get a glass of water and fill it half up with water. Imagine that what someone really wants and needs to think about is at the bottom of that glass. We don’t start any conversation with the most important stuff. We seem to need to go through a process of clearing our thoughts, sifting, clarifying and connecting. Every time, however well meaning, we ask a clarifying question, input our thoughts or share an example from our own life we effectively top up that glass of water.
So, we might never hear what is most important to the other person and we might never allow them the space and time to solve their own problems and come up with solutions that we have not yet considered. Everyone is capable of thinking really well for themselves, it’s just not many of us are given a chance to.
2. Remove distractions
Try as much as possible not to be distracted by phones and emails when you are thinking with other people. If you need to think about something yourself, turn off your phone, close down your emails and focus on one task at a time. If someone asks for your time, where possible, put your phone away, turn off your computer and give them your uninterrupted attention for as long as you can sustain it.
3. Reclaiming some time to think for yourself
No one is getting less busy, or working at a less frantic pace. Busyness has become the norm. One of the assumptions I hear even from senior leaders is that they don’t have time to stop and think. The implications of this though are chilling. If we don’t reclaim time to think how will we know that we are focusing our attention on the things that matter most? Without time to think everything becomes urgent and important and in the process the things that really make our lives meaningful can get lost.
Without valuing your own time you will find it almost impossible to offer it meaningfully to others. You could consider blocking out 5 - 10 minutes at the start or end of each day. Once a week you could allocate 30-60 minutes to review, reflect and make sure that you are focusing on the things that really matter. Allocating a small amount of time, delivers a disproportionate result and ensures that you are able to focus on what really matters.
What can you do differently today?
My suggestion is that next time someone comes to you asking for a solution, or for your ideas, pause a moment before answering. Ask them, before saying anything, what do you think? Then wait, and don’t fill in the silence, and smile warmly, and be at ease. And slowly they will start to think for themselves. When they’ve finished, ask them again, with interest, what more do you think, or feel or want to say? Even when they say that they really are finished prompt them again, with genuine interest and no urgency.
If they do still want your opinion, ask them if they could put what they want in the form of a question so you can focus your response on what they most want. Then here is where the magic starts to happen. Ask them that question instead of answering it and be amazed at just how far they can go in their own thinking before they need yours.
This was the question that they most needed and wanted to think about and it was just waiting (at the bottom of the glass) for someone to listen long enough for them to ask it.