Listening is one of the most important distinctions in communication. It is powered by the motivation to process information received from another. Taking total responsibility for the impact of your communication begins with the context of your listening. The possibility of empowerment that comes from communication becoming a reality relies on what influences your reception when listening. This, then, influences any response and hence experiences that follow.
Your relationship with listening determines your experience of the conversation.
“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but also to the essence of the person speaking, for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.” Peter Senge
According to Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, good listening is the key to developing fresh insights and ideas that fuel success. This is the kind of listening that is the active, disciplined kind of listening that helps us examine and challenge the information we hear in order to improve its quality and quantity, and thereby improve our decision-making. Ferrari says that although most people focus on learning how to communicate and how to present their own views more effectively, this approach is misguided and represents missed opportunities without effective listening.
Silence is the beginning of effective listening says Stephen Boyd, Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University. A way of showing respect for someone else is to be silent and listen when they are talking. This is obvious and we know from childhood. Yet, when life is not working, and right there your communication is not working, says Michele Hinds, Professional Consciousness Coach.
So, how do you take 100% responsibility for the impact of your communication? How do make your listening more evident in this context? How do you maximize your listening consciousness?
Being truly available, absolutely present, with no distractions in a mode of receptivity is a vital departure point. A predisposition of openness and genuine curiosity shows the other person that your purpose and the most important thing for you at that moment is your listening.
This is done by “leaving your ego at the door” before you enter a conversation – listening is not about you. It is about receiving information graciously; giving the opportunity and creating space for the possibility of free flow of information to be a reality. With ego, you are often concentrating more on your response, exercising your opinion than receiving the communication. Ego puts up barriers or filters. You hear what you want to hear and not what is being said. Being open to absorb all the information offered is conscious listening. It is an honor and an opportunity to gain insight that your ego is denying you the full benefit of.
Listening in the presence of ego is like trying to do a wine tasting by licking the label!
In fully conscious listening mode, Boyd suggests silence-enhancing techniques, such as being the fourth person to speak on a topic in a meeting, for instance, so that you have a better understanding of the context of the situation. Maintaining silence gives you added content and places you in a better position to contribute meaningfully.
Boyd adds that a 3 second pause before you respond encourages the other party to give you more and often quality information to enhance the quality of your feedback. This is because you have had time to give more thought before speaking. A pause lets the other person know that what he or she is saying is important to you.
I believe the established coaching 90:10 listening to speaking ratio rule applies equally to listening. To be fully available and engaged, 90% of the time is spent absorbing the message being conveyed and the remaining 10% on seeking clarity through powerful probing.
Empathy and compassion are vital to empowering listening. A default position is silence. When someone comes with an opinion, a problem or seeking advice, an automated first reaction may be to provide a counter opinion, immediate advice or a solution; sometimes, however, all the other person wants is someone to listen. More often than not, people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to respond. A created response is more likely through active listening. When taking the opportunity to have a thorough grasp of the situation, you then can potentially offer constructive, meaningful contribution that empowers both you and the other. Often though, if you’re listening empathetically, by talking through a situation, completely, the talker solves his or her own problem.
Listening empathically, or with feelings, means putting yourself in the talker’s position without getting emotionally involved. Empathic listening precedes effective and compassionate feedback because it goes to the root of the concern: the other person’s perspective.
Active listening is fundamental to resonant, empathetic interactions and shows the listener that he who listens actively cares, if, when listening, you pay attention to how it feels to listen; and when talking, you pay attention to how it feels to be listened to. The possibility of listening to another’s listening becomes a reality.
Stephen Boyd suggests that you communicate best when you don’t do the talking. He relates a story where in a recent seminar he had a participant who gave him excellent nonverbal feedback. She had a perpetual genuine smile and asked a couple of excellent, thought-provoking questions that initiated good seminar discussion. At a break he complimented her on this trait. Her response was intriguing. She said that she always wanted to raise the bar of interaction when listening to a speaker or a moderator at a meeting. She wanted to make sure there was a connection with the talker that made both the speaker and the listener work harder at exchanging ideas. She thought she could make the speaker even better with aggressive positive nonverbal reactions. She was very conscious of making that happen—thus the overt feedback. Listening is not passive; you can be very actively involved in communicating, even when you don’t speak.
However, what you hear is not always what the speaker intended. There is possible nothing more damaging to rapport than an out of context remark or meaningless comment. Being attentive is not enough. How can you make sure you listen and assimilate what the talker wanted you to understand?
Creative Consciousness® suggests that in the context of empowering with your listening; pre-occupation, conditioning, prejudice and experience all impact on your receptiveness. Being in an “open mode” and exercising your choice to listen from not needing to be right, not making wrong, creates the conditions for absorbing what the listener is not only saying, also meaning to say. This is conscious listening.
One way to promote listening rapport is to respectfully interject with questions about whatever is unclear. This is one of the rare occasions that interruption is not offending. You are showing concern for correct interpretation of the message. Ask for clarification about anything unclear – a word, story, suggestion, assertion, deduction, or conclusion to avoid the risk of being distracted by what was unclear and missing the rest of the message.
When speaker finishes speaking, paraphrasing what you felt the person said is effective in building rapport and promoting your understanding. Saying, “What I hear you saying is…” quickly allows you to know if you got the message the way the speaker intended. Perhaps giving an example of the meaning you interpret when the speaker finishes their comment. If the example does not fit, the talker can clarify and you get the real message. Giving examples also reinforce the fact that you were really listening and seeking to understand. This is a high compliment to the talker and will increase your credibility with the person.
Active listening is promoted by applying the mental discipline of concentrating on the content of the message you are listening to by asking yourself as you listen, “What is the point?”, “What is powering their speaking” or “What is the meaning thus far?” If you feel there is no point, you can interrupt by saying, “I’m not sure I understand, could you say that again?” Usually, this encourages the talker to be more concise when he or she gives the message the second time.
Contributing to the listening by interjecting with questions borne out of seeking clarity and coming from genuine curiosity is effective in another way. Empathetic listening does present a challenge when the story is emotionally charged. With every event or occurrence in life there is a distinction between the story and actuality. Quite simply, actuality is about the facts, reality, certainty, practicality, what actually happened and the ‘story’ is your interpretation, explanation, justification, biased reasoning, projection, etc. Things happen (or don’t happen) and the mind is a mechanism that attaches meaning to the things that happen (or don’t happen), which in turn powers our speaking.
Probing as to “Why do you feel that way?” although empathetic, allows the talker to go in the most comfortable direction, get into “story” and though not necessarily the direction you would have chosen. Compassion comes into play when listening consciously and really getting what the other is going through and demanding questions focused on actuality by probing with; “What makes you feel that way?”
In his McKinsey Quarterly article, Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening writes, “Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation.” He believes that one of the cornerstones of good listening is that in order to get what you need to know from your conversations and make good decisions, you must be willing to challenge long-held and cherished assumptions and “sacred cows”. Just because something has always been done in a certain way in the past doesn’t mean there isn’t an equally good or better way to do it.
The challenge is asking questions that invoke enquiry and digs deep into the root cause of a problem or going beyond the obvious and gets the speaker into creative responses. Question might include; “What other factors are involved?” or “What other elements might influence the way you handle this problem?” or “What actions have you taken so far?”
Embracing periods of silence interspersed with inspirational enquiry as suggested are the hallmarks of conscious listening. So, do you take 100% responsibility for the impact of your communication? How do you maximize your listening consciousness?
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati.
Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All.