There is a lot said and taught about listening. We know it’s the vital component of our relationships. Who doesn’t love to be truly listened to, to be truly heard? Isn’t that what we are really asking for? When we feel heard we relax, our tensions melt away and insight rushes in to fill the void. Wouldn’t we love to be able to perform that service to others, to allow them to relax, then to see things differently, to find new perspectives and solutions to what seemed to be pressing problems? As a coach, it is the first and very nearly the only approach that I use. When I listen, and you feel are listened to, it seems that magic occurs. We relax, we connect, and we are in a space where all sorts of possibilities emerge. Problems that seemed insoluble can actually have solutions, and when there is not an easy solution, we find the courage to face what has to be faced, and to do what needs to be done. That’s why I enjoy coaching so much, both the sense of connection and the real progress that is made when my clients are genuinely listened to. It is invigorating and refreshing for both of us.
It was not always this way. While I knew how important listening was of for all of my work, as a manager or a consultant or a coach, most of the approaches I was taught and
tried simply didn’t work. As StephenCovey famously said: “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply”. But even if we try to listen with the intent to understand, we are so easily derailed. Somehow in the moment we get distracted or fixated on the problem being discussed, clouding our ability to
listen deeply. Often, we fall into the trap of thinking about what is being said and end up only hearing our own thoughts about the conversation.
So, what is going on that is getting in the way of us listening deeply to understand?
Simply put its our state of mind in the moment. Are we busyheaded or are we clear headed? Are we thinking about our thinking or curious about what the person we are listening to is thinking? When our minds are clear, and we are present in the moment we naturally listen. We connect at a level beyond our thinking. Human to human you might say. It requires no cognitive effort; it comes from a place within us that is beyond our intellect. In this state our attention as the listener is focused on the person we are listening to and how they see the world. We have suspended our own assumptions or perceptions, so we can see what they see without our own filters. It may occur to us to be curious and ask questions or we may just listen from a feeling of compassion. This has been termed as “clear listening”. The diagram below illustrates this in comparison with a distracted state of mind.
Then the question is likely to be, how do we achieve this listening state?
Firstly, to realise that listening is in our nature, not something we have to learn. It’s our default state when we are present in the moment.
Secondly, to get curious about our state of mind in themoment and where is our attention. If we are impatient, worried or in a busy state, then we tend to listen more to our own thinking and listen less to the person we are with.
To help us identify our state, below are three potentialways how busy states of mind produce unproductive thinking and block us from listening. If you are interested in the fulllist of “Blocks to Listening” go to our Free Resources tab and download a free copy.
1. Comparing andContrasting
Comparing and contrasting makes it hard to listen becauseyou’re always trying to assess who is smarter, more competent, more emotionally healthy- you or the other person. Some people focus on who is the bigger victim. While someone is talking, you think to yourself: “Could I do it that well? I know from experience, he/shedoesn’t know…” You can’t let much in because you’re too busy seeing your point of view. People are always comparing new ideas with what they think they know.
2. Assuming Motive
Mistrust and insecurity cause you to believe in the negativemotives of others rather than the innocence. You will always assume the worst in terms of the motivation behind a comment or behaviour. You think that everyone is thinking about you and in a very negative way. You are always thinking about what the other person really meant, what they really want, or what’s in it for them.
Judging is a sophisticated form of negativity. Negative labels have enormous power. If you prejudge someone as stupid, notcapable or unqualified, you don’t pay as much attention to what they say. You’ve already written them off. Hastily discounting a statement means you’ve ceased to listen and have begun a “knee-jerk” reaction.
So, what am I saying? This a long list of what not to do. What is it we are supposed to do?
Consider doing nothing.
Curiosity and openness is our natural state. When we are fully present, we want to connect, to hear and be heard. If there is a trick, and this is not really a trick, just relax. Let whatever is happening happen. Just put aside all those thoughts for the moment, to see what happens, and prepare to be astonished.