The Commitment to Listen

Face it: we are lousy listeners. It’s part of what makes us human. Some are more skilled than others but we can surely all get better. Over the course of decades of teaching this critical skill, whenever I’ve asked my students “How can we improve?”, invariably the answer is “Listen harder.” To which I respond, “Huh, … how do we listen harder?”

There are a lot of reasons why younger people with enormous untapped potential seek employment elsewhere. I’m familiar with these as I occasionally conduct exit interviews with departing staff. The purpose of my enquiry is to harvest and then leverage the tacit knowledge for which my clients have already paid, often heavily. Among the reasons given for leaving is this lament: “My boss just doesn’t listen to me.” Of relevance is research that says the #1 predictor of job tenure and loyalty is the relationship one has with his or her supervisor. When trust and respect, bi-products of active listening, are eroded, longevity and productivity are diminished.

There is a difference between listening and hearing. Most of us hear; few of us listen. We hear through our ears but we listen with our brains. The occipital lobes and our mirror neurons interpret (radically slice and dice) external auditory sensations through biased cognitive filters. So, perhaps the biggest hurdle we face in becoming more adept at the art of listening is the assumption that we can both quickly assess and understand what others are telling us.

In a negotiation, information is the ultimate source of power. If you concur with that notion, then you will appreciate the value, if not the wisdom, of developing superior listening and observation skills. (You will also appreciate the necessity of asking well-designed, artful, probing and penetrating questions – though that is the subject of a different blog.) And listening with intent at the bargaining table is the cheapest, most effective concession you can make.

Begin with the realization that our state of mind determines largely what we hear. When upbeat, optimistic and euphoric, we hear the good things. When downcast, pessimistic or disparaged, we hear the bad. In simple terms, we hear what we want to hear, not necessarily what is being said. This selective listening is called wishful hearing. When we accept the premise that we frequently judge people prematurely, critically or incorrectly, we start to become better listeners.

Studies suggest our non-verbal gestures represent as much as 75% of the actual meaning in communication, especially when stress is involved. I advise my students they need to get beyond “the mask” people often wear, particularly in the presence of those whom they do not trust. This cautionary or protective behaviour purposefully disguises or conceals information that, if given away, puts us at a disadvantage. The need to feign certain critical information, such as our true feelings or motives, behind a self-imposed facade (which some call a poker face) is frequently misunderstood.

To discern truth from misinformation or deception, we need to pay attention to non-verbal cues. We need to listen with our eyes as much as our ears. Neuroscience says 82% of the inputs to the brain are visual; 11% are auditory. The transference of information is multi-dimensional. We need to listen on all the sensory channels we possess. We need to also listen for emotions and values. Is the “tone” one of confidence, insecurity, fear, arrogance, frustration, elation or something else? Are they in sync with what we are saying or have they tuned us out? Is your gut telling you something your eyes aren’t seeing or your ears aren’t hearing?

Despite what we might like to believe, most of the time we listen on a superficial level, just long enough to get the gist of what is being said. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote” “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Once we think we know where a speaker is likely heading, our focus shifts inward as we silently compare what we heard to our own logic about how the world works.

We filter and interpret the words we hear through our beliefs and succumb to heuristic traps like priming, anchoring, trait ascription or confirmation bias. Although we’re seemingly engaged in active listening, by offering encouraging nods and grunts, we’re often on a different philosophical planet. And we do this reflexively to protect our sense of who we are. Because, as noted, we are human.

So, aside from deploying all the senses, how can we get better? First, recognize that our default (normal) mode is to react without much comprehension or reflection to ensure accuracy. We interrupt, criticize, patronize and argue. We become agitated, intense and invasive, especially when we disagree with opposing views that don’t quite fit our mental models. Engaging fully in the act of listening requires commitment, discipline, patience and practice. We need to focus our receptors on what others are saying, not on what we want to say next.

Understand the power of being non-reactive. It’s called a pregnant pause for a reason; it gives birth to better replies. Responding with that momentary nothingness – two seconds is sufficient; three is even better – sounds simple but is hard to do. It comes with practice. Contemplation is more likely when we discover how to listen between the lines, much like a detective trying to piece together the hidden or missing clues, to ascertain what’s not being said as much as what is. Often the real message lies in what is unexpressed.

Make it easy for the speaker to talk openly, more slowly and perhaps even more candidly. As I sometimes advise my students, the very best thing they can say in a negotiation – the response that guarantees more and better information – is nothing. Or “Anything else?” Or “Please, go on.” Nature abhors a vacuum; let them fill it. People don’t always seek agreement but they always want to be heard.

By genuinely reflecting back what others say, for accuracy and understanding, we create the necessary psychological comfort and safety needed to encourage them to tell us more. Use responses like “It seems what you are trying to tell me is …” or “It sounds like ….” These empathic interjections convey a sincere interest in listening to, if not (in some ways) validating, their point of view. They stimulate clarity. As you deliver this assuring enquiry with an appropriate follow-up question, lean forward, nod or verbally acknowledge their comments in a calm, nonaggressive voice.

Listening may be an act of seduction. It requires intentional commitment, not the presumption you hear because you have ears to do so. The best advice I can offer is borrowed from Harriet Lerner, who said: “Listen with the same passion with which you want to be heard.” The commitment to listen makes us more interesting, empathic, likeable and trustworthy. That increases our situational awareness and thus our power. It’s amazing what people will tell you when you take the time and make the effort to truly listen to them.