Recently a close friend of mine called because she was going through a stressful time. A lot of stuff was happening with her business, and she found it difficult to manage all the emotional stress, which came with this. I listened for a bit, and then when a pause came I quickly jumped in with a response similar to “Yes! My experience is….And I feel like…And what you should do is”. And tada!, the conversation was all about me.
I didn’t do this out of bad intention. I wanted to bring comfort, show understanding, offer reassurance, and find a solution. Do you hear the I, I, I ? It was all about me accomplishing.
LISTEN SOMEONE INTO BEING
I once had a leader, who knew how to listen (and yes I have really only ever had one). I vividly remember our first conversation although it is close to a decade ago. It was after the regular morning meeting, on a usual really busy day where people fly off like busy bees to get things moving in the newsroom where I was working at the time. But he stopped me in the hall, took the time to talk to me and ask about me. He never offered advice, opinion, or his own stories. All he did was to take the time out of his busy day to ask and listen to me.
What happened was that he listened me into being. I felt important, valued, wise, seen, and I felt safe. From that day I would probably have gone to the moon and back if he had asked me. And I have indeed pulled off some of my best results because of him. When I think back, a lot can be traced back to that moment of listening when we first met. And this moment has forever since been printed into my mind as a reminder of how being a successful leader is achieved with something so seemingly small as listening to understand.
LISTENING CAN BE SCARY
I have since taken this to heart. I remember when I first started coaching, and I was dead scared of not knowing what to say to people when they came to me with their problems. But it was not until I allowed myself to not know what to say in a coaching session that I became a great coach. Instead of my mind processing like crazy to have an answer or an advice ready, I give my mind a rest and just listen. I let myself feel the discomfort of not finding an answer while the other person speaks. And I find that, when it is at some point my turn to speak, the responses I have are much more profound and useful.
This was not easy for me. In pretty much all my jobs I have been paid to know better. I’m paid to be a problem solver. When people come to me with a problem, my mind is like a crazy computer, processing a complex set of data in no time, taking all sorts of variables into account, and then it spits out a solution. And I have been operating from the belief that if I didn’t have a great answer or a good advice, I probably wasn’t good enough. I was not valuable to my friends. I was not a good enough coach or a great strategic advisor. So I’ve learned to listen to win.
Winning the right to hear myself speak, the right to talk about myself, the right to appear clever and wise, the right to say what is on my mind. I win the right to present my view of the world. I listened to be right, and to make myself feel ‘good enough’.
But all I was doing was loosing. Everytime I listen to win, I loose the chance to acquire new knowledge, I loose the chance to understand deeper, and I rub myself of the opportunity to develop a deeper bond with a person, who came to me to share their story. I loose the chance to be a greater leader and the chance to listen someone into being.
I still forget to listen to understand. Like the day my friend called me. I was driving and a little preoccupied with my own feelings of overwhelm and stuff going on. So I quickly jumped into my default analytical frame of mind, offering advice. And this is what we do most of the time, when we do not choose to be mindful. We cut people off, shut them down, take over the stage.
The key to listen is attention and awareness. And that is something we can choose to bring to any conversation. But it takes practice and decision. If you want to become a more successful leader or just develop deeper bonds with people by being a better listener, you have to start by becoming a strong observer of yourself. Start to practice today with the 3-step awareness exercise you’ll find below.
They will help you become a better listener by observing what mode you listen from and what is happening in your mind as you listen. I hope you find it useful and I promise that it will help deepen all of your relationships. Business as well as personal.
AWARENESS EXERCISES FOR BETTER LISTENING
What mode of attention and awareness are you listening from?
People often listen in three modes of attention and awareness:
Automatic reacting. This is the mode where you react quickly and make snap judgments. Too many leaders operate from here because they are overwhelmed, overloaded, and have tons to do. They feel stressed already, so when someone comes with a problem, a concern, new information or idea, they are high-jacked by their amygdala, and basically see anything the person comes with like a threat to their own safety. So they listen only to quickly put that threat to death. And that is also how they will respond – like what the person is coming with is a threat. This will most often cause the other person to feel misunderstood or even dismissed. It will result in conflict, either direct or indirectly.
Process/Conceptual analytical thinking. This is when you use what you already know to be true to assess what you sense, and then you act in alignment with what you already know to be true. So you might be listening, but you are still processing an answer as you listen based on what you already know to be true to you. This is the all about me mind-set where you in essence listen out of concerns with your own self-image.
Mindful. This is where you are able to really listen to other people. This is when you take the time to let go of all other things and suspend what ’you know to be true’. When you come from this mode, and listen with all your sense, you can’t help but acquire new knowledge. And you can help but make the other person feel valued and seen. It requires that you make a deliberate effort to center yourself and let go of all the stuff that is happening to you at this moment, and that you then dispense your existing knowledge. And just listen to understand. And when you give yourself this opportunity, then you will always come up with a better response, when the time calls for you to speak.
Become a strong observer of your own inner thoughts
In situations when you listen, observe what is happening in your mind when someone tells you something.
Are you thinking of something to say? A clever reply?
Are you thinking about that one time this happened to you? How you would have done things differently?
Are you thinking about something completely unrelated?
Are you interrupting?
Are you being distracted by something in the surroundings?
Start to ask questions
Just ask – and ask – and ask again. Practice the art of asking. Many of us have become so accustomed to talking that we have forgotten how to ask questions. Practice. And try to hold that awkward feeling that might come from you not saying anything but just asking and listening and asking again. And start conversations by asking more meaningful questions. In the picture above, you’ll find two great questions you can ask someone next time to get a real conversation going.