“Hurry up and finish speaking, so I can tell you why you’re wrong!” (Guidelines for listening)

November 12, 2012

“Hurry up and finish speaking, so 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 well.  It leaves us poised for a fight, rather than 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, sales — all tasks involving relationships.  We need to listen to employees, managers,  customers and potential customers, suppliers, stockholders, neighbors — all those who are impacted by our policies and operations.

When I worked as a user interface designer, or as a usability consultant, listening to users is basic.  Sometimes I would “listen” with my eyes as well.  Users who were nervous and tense as they worked with our business software were telling us something.  When I saw them looking relaxed and at ease with a new version of our technology, I could “hear” some of their satisfaction, and knew we’re succeeding.

As a consultant or coach my job is to listen, feed back what I’ve heard, and then listen even more.  Clients always have something important to tell us — often something that they haven’t yet heard themselves state, and that they need to hear

When selling, listening to a prospect describe their “pain” informs me so that I can present our product as an antidote.

Here are some guidelines for listening in a business context.  (They may also be relevant in your personal life.)

1.  Listen for understanding.  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 the content will be most important. At other times the content may seem trivial, but the emotion carries the message.

3.  Ask only questions that confirm or correct your understanding.  As part of my listening, I may offer a tentative statement, making it clear that I’m inviting a correction.  For example, “What I’m hearing is that you only flust the ink supply lines when changing from a darker to a lighter color.  Have I got that right?”.  I choose an important point for confirmation, and make it easy for the person to say, “No — even when going from light to dark, flushing the ink lines is 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 during crises is the “hot” issue here.  Am I hearing you right?”

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

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

7.  Listen for points of agreement, even when there 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 “I see” / “I imagine” / ” I feel” paradigm.  With a complex dialog, try to separate what the person observed, then what they might imagine about the situation, and finally how they are left feeling.  Consider the following dialog:
A: “You really let me down — not calling at all!”
B: “What do you mean?”
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.”
B: “Actually I did try to call, and got a funny signal.  Something must have been wrong with    your phone line.”

In this simple example, once both parties could agree on what happened, the imagined scenario turned out to be wrong, and strong emotion was completely unnecessary.  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 helping me understand your message.

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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