Listen loudly

September 16, 2008

“Hurry up and finish speaking, so that I can tell you why you’re wrong!”

Have you ever found yourself thinking such a thought, instead of really trying to grasp what truth might be said?  Of course, such impatient waiting is not true listening, and rarely serves us.  It leaves us poised for a fight, rather ready for insight, understanding, and growth.

Listening is a critical skill in all of our lives. In business we’re concerned with management, supervision, marketing, customer support, and other tasks — all involving relationships.  We need to listen to our employees, our managers, our customers and potential customers, our suppliers, our stockholders, our neighbors — all those who are impacted by all of our policies and operations.

For me as a user interface designer, or usability consultant, listening to users is basic.  And sometimes I need to listen not just with my ears, but with my eyes as well.  Users who are nervous and tense as they try to operate some business software are telling me something.  When we test out another version of the software, and I see them looking relaxed and at ease, I “hear” some of their satisfaction.

Here are some guidelines for listening in a business context (although they may also be relevant in your personal life):

1. Listen for understanding, and avoid using the listening time to plan a response or rejoinder.

2. Try to hear both the content and the emotion of what’s being said.  Sometimes it’s the content that will be most important; other times the content may seem trivial, but the emotion is still strong.

3. It’s helpful to ask questions to help confirm or to correct your understanding.  Often I’ll just put forward a tentative statement, making it clear that I’m inviting a correction.  For example, “So . . . what I’m hearing is that you only need to clean the ink lines when changing from a lighter to a darker color.  Have I got it right?”.  Here I choose an important point for confirmation, and made it easy for the person to say, “No — even if going from light to dark, flushing the ink line in critical.”

4. When the matter is more complex, and involves emotional as well as intellectual content, such testing is even more important.  For example, “You’ve listed lots of workplace issues, but it sounds to me like the lack of team support when crises occur is the “hot” issue here.  Am I hearing you correctly?”

5. Use such questions honestly to test understanding, and not as a way to push for a particular point of view.  If you’re really wanting to say “Don’t you believe that . . .” (or feel that), then you’re not really questioning, but arguing.

6. Move slowly!  Some people are quick verbally, will process your words instantly, and respond right away.  Others need time to take in a question or statement, then must cogitate, and will continue thinking as they respond.  Either the speaker, or the listener — whoever is slower — can set the pace.

7. Listen for points of agreement, even when they may be substantial disagreement as well.  Find common values, common observations, facts that all can accept as valid.

8. When emotions are involved, consider using the “see / imagine / feel” paradigm.  Out of a complex dialog, try to separate what the person observed, then what they might imagine about the situation, and then how they are left feeling.  Consider the following dialog:

A: “You really let me down — not calling at all!”

B: “Well, what happened?”

A: “I was waiting by the phone all day, but received no calls”.

B: “So, you thought that I hadn’t called, and you felt let down?”

A: “That’s it exactly.”

A: “Actually I did try to call, but got a strange tone instead of a ring.  Something was wrong.”

In this simple example, once both parties could agree on what happened, the imagined scenario turned out to be wrong, and the emotion was completely misplaced.  But both parties had to acknowledge, and then put aside that emotion.

9. Remember that listening is an active and collaborative process.  I may not really hear what you mean at first, but together we can work at giving me a real understanding of your concerns.

10. Don’t try to multitask.  Reading e-mail while on a phone call does not promote real listening.  Be present, even if the person you are listening to can’t see where you are.

11. Be ready for surprises.  In fact, if we always knew what the other was going to say, then why listen at all?

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