Turn listening into your superpower

Hearing is one of the five basic senses that humans use to understand the world. Hearing is a natural reflex but listening however requires focus.

Our understanding of the world is shaped by how well we listen. However, most people do not listen with undivided attention because instead of focusing on the other person, they focus on themselves.

Listening is intentional. It requires focus.

  • Genuine and undivided listening is the key to strong human relationships.
  • People are more likely to trust and value the opinion of the person who truly listens.
  • Compassionate leaders know how to listen to the words as well as the emotions behind the words.
  • Asking questions will prompt the sharing of more details or the development of ideas to resolve the issue at hand

We can all recall instances when we have spoken to someone who looks distracted. Usually, this is our cue to wrap up the conversation. We can also recall instances where the other person has a point to make and their need to repeat it until we are convinced, deafens them to hear our view. This conversation feels more like a competition than an exchange of ideas.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

Dalai Lama

Genuine and undivided listening is the keystone for building strong human relationships. Listening is fundamental to connecting with other human beings. Without it, we cannot build rapport, trust or demonstrate that we are interested and that we care.

If we accept that not everyone listens with undivided attention, it follows, therefore, that you are not always heard. I would not be going out on a limb by predicting that you, dear reader, like to be heard. When you talk to your friends, your colleagues or your family about something that matters to you, you absolutely want to be heard. Of course you do. Everyone does.

Unfortunately, people are often so distracted by their own issues or scanning the dialogue for points of agreement or disagreement, they miss the whole message being conveyed to them and the opportunity is lost to understand another person. Put simply, most people focus on themselves when they think they are listening to another person. Undivided attention to listening requires the focus on the other person.

Enthusiastic Ann

Enthusiastic Ann was my colleague many years ago when we were both part of Australia’s overseas diplomatic corps. I learned an enormous amount from Ann and would like to share some of that here.

Enthusiastic Ann listened intently and asked meaningful questions to find out more about her staff and colleagues as individuals.

She listened to their successes and their problems and demonstrated her interest by checking in with them after the conversation. By listening intently to people, Ann made people feel important.

Listening was Enthusiastic Ann’s superpower and listening can be your superpower too, and if you choose to develop this superpower you will find that the rewards will be great.

Leaders who listen attentively;

  • access new information and expand their knowledge base to make more informed and fairer decisions
  • understand how their staff understand the world, identify potential knowledge gaps or misunderstandings and adapt to meet the changing needs of staff.
  • show their staff respect and courtesy who will reciprocate by showing respect and courtesy in return
  • show their staff that they are valued, and their point of view is worth hearing and increase their own capacity to influence, motivate and develop people effectively.
  • Build productive relationships with others

In August 2011 Time Magazine listed Stephen Covey’s book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ as one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Management Books”. In fact, the work was so popular and respected that U.S. President Bill Clinton invited Stephen Covey to Camp David to help him integrate the 7 habits into his presidency.

The fifth habit of highly effective people according to Stephen Covey is to Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Covey explained that when a person seeks to deeply understand the perspective of another through empathic listening, the listener is more able to effectively interact with that person and offer targeted advice or suggest suitable solutions.

To illustrate, Covey used an analogy about going to the optometrist.

Let’s say you go to an optometrist and tell him that you’ve been having trouble seeing clearly, and he takes off his glasses, hands them to you and says, “Here, try these — they’ve been working for me for years!” You put them on, but they only make the problem worse. What are the chances you’d go back to that optometrist?

Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey further noted that while it takes time to learn empathic listening it does not take as long as it does to correct misunderstandings or to resolve problems that surface later due to a misunderstanding.

So how can you learn to develop listening into your leadership superpower?

Listen with undivided attention

When you do this, the person to whom you are listening feels heard.

When the person with whom you are talking feels that you are truly listening, they are more likely to trust that you value their opinion. When a person feels heard they are more likely to listen when you talk and to value your contribution as considered and thoughtful.

Learn the skill of silence

To really hear another person, you must first be silent when they speak.

This means not interrupting, no matter how tempting it may be to do so. Silence is a really powerful tool that is sadly under-utilised. But there is a catch. For silence to be a powerful tool, the speaker must recognise that silence is indicative of attention.

Do this by teaming silence with non-verbal communication cues that demonstrate that you are listening.

Non-verbal cues include facing the other person and using an open posture, using eye contact and facial gestures to demonstrate attention and avoiding any desire to fidget or tap.

Learn the art of questioning

As a general rule, in a one-to-one conversation, ask at least three questions before responding.

Powerful questions demonstrate your curiosity; stimulate conversation; are thought-provoking; reveal underlying assumptions, and encourage deeper focus.

Questions open your mind, expand your options and stimulate creativities. By asking questions you encourage more effective thinking about the problem to find better solutions. The process of thinking of and asking useful questions will help you resist the temptation to jump to conclusions.

Some good questions to elicit and promote solutions include:

  • Can you tell me more?
  • What else?
  • Why/Why not?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What do you think is a good way of approaching this?
  • Do you see any problems with that idea?
  • Can you think of any other ways?
  • Who else might have some ideas about this?
  • What is the main obstacle?
  • Are there any others?
  • What do you need most right now?
  • Who can help you?
  • What will success look like and why is it better than the current state?
  • Is there another way of doing it?
  • Have you assessed any potential dangers in taking this course of action?
  • What are the potential risks associated with this proposal and how can they be mitigated?

I can’t list all possible questions because the number is endless. But by asking questions you will gain a deeper understanding about whatever it is that you are being told. Furthermore, your questions will likely encourage your staff member to engage in a deeper consideration of the issue and will demonstrate that you are interested in their opinion. Your questions demonstrate that your staff member is valued for their thoughts and ideas.

Look and listen for the emotion that sits behind the words

Leaders must learn to listen, not just for the words, but for the emotions behind the words. By understanding how your staff feel, you are more likely to meet their needs and elicit their best work.

If a person comes to you with obvious emotions, acknowledge them and then ask your questions. Strong emotions can be difficult to respond to and often our gut response is to try to shut down the emotion by solving the problem.

Resist this and use your questions to show your interest and help the staff member work through why they feel so deeply about the matter. For example, if an angry staff member comes to you with obvious hostility, acknowledge that the person is clearly angry and ask questions to help them gain a deeper understanding of the issue and help them accept or find a solution to it.

“I can see that you are angry, can you tell me why you feel so strongly about this?”

Or in situations of obvious joy, you could ask:

“I am delighted to see you so happy; can you tell me more about why this situation gives you so much joy?”

If the underlying emotion is not clear, continue to ask questions and pay attention to the emotions. In time the emotion that lies behind the words will become clear and will help you respond in the most helpful and appropriate way.

Experiment with listening techniques

Next time you are in a conversation with a person who is clearly trying to convince you of something, is offering a suggestion or voicing a grievance, give them your undivided attention. Use silence to watch and listen to their emotions. Watch how your silence can make space for the person talking to offer more insights. Ask them at least three questions to learn more about their opinion. Watch how your questions prompt the sharing of more details or the development of ideas to resolve the issue at hand. Understanding and valuing does not mean agreeing but if, after listening, you offer an opinion, I suspect it will be heard.

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