You’ve likely read about listening, heard podcasts about listening and tried all the tips, tricks and strategies to get better at listening. You may even think you ARE a pretty good listener already.
But the truth is, you’re not as good of a listener as you think. Listening is no easy task, and it’s likely you’re falling short.
If you want to be a better listener, view listening as more than an activity or behavior, and start considering it a practice. In this blog post, I’ll coach you on this distinction and how a developmental perspective on listening can transform both the way you listen and communicate.
“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley
Coaching: When listening becomes a practice
Listening is often considered to be a technical skill or behavior – something you have to do and sometimes aim to do better. When listening becomes nodding and saying “mmhm,” it’s limited to a largely physical act.
There’s the tried-and-true “talking stick,” which gives the holder a group’s undivided attention. In the legislature, leaders recognize representatives individually for a chance to speak and be heard. In our relationships you practice “active listening,” nodding our heads, offering frequent responses and trying to repeat what the other has said to show just how well you’re listening.
But there are limits when you approach listening as a behavior. If you truly want to hear what someone is trying to communicate so that our communication takes on a collaborative quality, you need to focus on listening with a developmental lens. Rather than asking yourself what to do to be good listening, you need to ask who you need to be as a listener.
If you’ve been reading my content long enough, you know this distinction between doing and being is the push you need to lead from later stages of development. When you focus on who you need to be as a leader and let that knowledge drive what you do, our leadership actions are more authentic, more personal, and more effective. It’s no different with listening.
When it comes to being a good listener, it’s about more than just hearing what the other person is saying – it’s about hearing what they need you to understand.
This isn’t easy, of course. You all come to conversations, whether you realize it or not, with predictions of what you think will happen, what you believe the other person wants and what you think their motives are.
When you only approach listening as an activity, you aren’t doing anything to question those predictions. When you approach listening from a developmental stance and treat it as a practice, you are more able to stay curious about the other person’s perspective and truly transform our listening practice.
You can practice listening from a:
- 1st person stance – a way of being
- 2nd person stance – a way of being together
- 3rd person stance – a way of observing the way are being together
PRACTICE: What can I try?
Some of the most basic listening skills and tactics – the doing of listening – can be very helpful toward developing a listening practice (if you internalize them, approach them authentically and use them to stay curious).
One of the best examples of this is to use a behavior from “active listening,” in which listeners are told they should repeat back what someone has just said in order to show they are hearing well.
From a traditional “doing” stance, this response might look like:
“What I hear you saying is that when you don’t get that report from me on time, that really bothers you.”
While this is what your conversation partner said, it doesn’t get to the heart of why they are bothered, and it’s most likely not the message they truly wanted you to hear. This kind of response is still focused on your interpretation of their feelings – the fact that they are bothered – and doesn’t help you dig deeper to the real issue at hand.
By evolving this technique with a developmental stance, you can level up your response and ask questions that help you dig deeper:
“What I hear you saying is that when you don’t get that report from me on time it affects you negatively – can you help me understand the impact?”
You can ask follow up questions to dig even deeper:
- Do you think I understand this well enough?
- What more do you want me to understand about what you’re saying?
- Have we gotten to the heart of what is important to you?
- Is our understanding good enough to find a way forward?
The aim here is to remain curious, hesitate to jump to our predictions and respond in an authentic way. When we do this we are developing a listening practice and being a more effective listener (and leader).
DEVELOPMENTAL CHALLENGE: Being heard is your responsibility
Are you easy to listen to? You can take responsibility for your role in every conversation and lead people in listening by being a more intentional communicator.
To be a communicator who supports the listening of others, start by coaching yourself with these questions:
- What’s at stake for each of us in this conversation?
- What do I want this person to understand?
- What do they want me to understand?
- How can I communicate that using a listening practice that takes into account all three stances (1st, 2nd, 3rd person) and is committed to curiosity?
Use the example from the practice section. As the communicator, you can build on the observation that something is causing a problem and also include what the impact of that behavior is on us. As the listener, you could request that the communicator explain what the impact of their observation is on them so that you understand.
- Starting with: “It really bothers me when you don’t get me that report on time.”
- Build on that by adding: “Because it causes my work to be late and delays the process for my team.”
You can’t depend on people to read between the lines about what is really at stake for you. By focusing first on what you want the person to understand and then determining how to communicate that message, you can help lead the conversation in understanding.