Next time you’re at a meeting when you are not a central participant, take a couple of minutes and watch some of the other people at the table. Most of them won’t even look like they are listening carefully. Some are fidgeting in their seats. Some are checking their email under the table. Few of them are really listening to what is going on around them.
Listening is a skill that can make you a better colleague and a more effective leader. When people feel as though they have been heard, they trust you more. In addition, there are a lot of problems that arise through miscommunication. A lot of miscommunication isn’t because someone fails to express themselves clearly, it happens because the other person doesn’t listen carefully.
Many listening problems emerge from the way most of us think about conversations. The structure of a conversation seems obvious. One person speaks. Then, another one picks up the thread of the discussion, and the different people contribute their thoughts.
Just from this description, it might seem that your role in a conversations is to think about your reaction to what has been said so far, and plan what you are going to say next, but there are several problems with this strategy.
First, you haven’t given the other person a chance to say what they wanted to say completely. It’s possible that the last thing they say will change the tenor of their earlier remarks, and you’ll miss that if you are focused on your next turn.
Second, by focusing on what you are going to say, you are paying the most attention to your own perspective on the conversation. That can make it difficult to see things from another person’s point of view. By trying to understand the context in which someone else makes a remark, you can often get a deeper understanding of the issues they are facing.
Remember that when you listen, you are learning from the other person. Research on motivation by Arie Kruglanski a social psychologist and his colleagues at the University of Maryland suggests that there are two distinct motivational mindsets: a thinking mindset and a doing mindset. When you listen, you put yourself in a thinking mindset. It gives you a chance to really try to understand what is going on around you. When you focus on planning your next contribution to the conversation, you enter a doing mindset, and you don’t think through the events carefully. Give yourself that chance to think.
Shifting yourself out of a doing mode can be difficult. Often, colleagues come to you with a problem, and so your initial reaction is to prepare yourself to solve the problem. However, the problem that people come to talk to you about is not always the real problem that needs to be solved. If you jump too quickly into a mode of trying to solve the problem you are facing, you may cure a symptom rather than curing the disease. Taking the thinking perspective is the conversational equivalent of the carpenter’s saying “Measure twice, cut once.”
When you focus on your next contribution, you may miss the emotion behind what is being said. You communicate a lot more than just the statements we make with the words we use. Your tone of voice, posture, and gestures also say a lot about how you feel. After all, the simple sentence “That was a great point,” can be a compliment or an insult just based on how it is said.
It is important to get a sense of how deeply someone cares about the issue being discussed and their satisfaction with how the issue has been dealt with so far. Often, there are issues that you don’t care about at all that are extraordinarily important to someone else. Failing to recognize and appreciate that difference can undermine your colleagues’ trust in you.
Finally, get in the habit of repeating back at least some of what colleagues have said to you when you are dealing with important issues. Give that summary before you launch into your own solutions. There are three reasons why this is helpful.
You have to listen carefully to what other people have said in order to be able to repeat it back. When you accurately state what other people have said, they feel like you have taken in what they had to say. As a result, they trust your response more than if they don’t feel they were heard. By repeating it back, you also ensure that you really understood it. If you missed something, you may find you have trouble actually summarizing what was said, and so you can ask for clarification. In addition, your summary gives other conversation participants a chance to correct or clarify the point.
Ultimately, the ability to extract what people mean from a conversation is one of the most important tools of any leader. It takes a lot of work. And it requires curbing your natural tendency to jump right to a solution to people’s problems.