My Dad, who passed away in 2006, had a collection of favorite sayings. At one point we packaged them up and listed the top 10 ala David Letterman. At the top of the list was the phrase “listen you might learn something”. Over the years I have begun to understand more deeply the wisdom of his words.
Listening well is a key competency for being a good human. It is especially important for those in leadership and in the conflict management disciplines, such as law, mediation, arbitration. There are probably thousands of books and articles written on what effective listening looks like. I want to focus on a few recent finds that lead to five important principles.
1. The First Question (Note 1)
In this New York Times article, wellness columnist Jancee Dunn suggests that if someone is upset or emotionally overwhelmed, we should ask one question:
Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?
That respectful question gives the upset person a sense of control. It also recognizes that there is no one response that fits every situation.
Principle: Give options.
While conflict management practitioners are unlikely to offer a hug to their clients, it is useful to ask whether they would like to be helped or heard. Early in my career I was much too quick to jump to problem-solving (fixing) before ensuring the other person felt heard. Perhaps our professional training primes us to listen to formulate our response (argument) which narrows our focus and causes us to miss a lot.
Principle: Listen not to respond but to understand.
2. High-quality Listening
Most of us are familiar with the admonition to use “active listening”. Recent research points out that active listening has been “muddied” over time. It can become a rote series of steps, such as “what I’m hearing you say is…”, which can feel artificial. High-quality listening is not just about being silent and creating space for the other to talk. It also acknowledges that the “listener is an active agent in the conversation who can contribute verbally and non-verbally to shaping the interaction”.
According to this study, high-quality listeners:
- Convey undivided attention, comprehension and positive intention.
- Use verbal and nonverbal reactions that signal interest and curiosity without interrupting the speakers including:
- Eye contact
- Open posture
- Facial expression
- Paraphrasing content
- Asking open-ended and clarifying questions
- Taking a non-judgmental attitude
Principle: the best listening is not passive but active engagement.
3. Listening is a Muscle that Requires Training
A 2018 Harvard Business Review article lists 6 tips for being a better listener:
- Give 100% of your attention, or do not listen.
- Do not interrupt.
- Do not judge or evaluate.
- Do not impose your solutions.
- Ask more (good) questions that benefit the speaker not our own curiosity.
- Reflect on what you learned.
Principle: Practice, reflect, learn and try again.
4. Good Listeners are Like Trampolines
This 2016 HBR article notes that good listeners:
“..are someone you can bounce ideas off of – and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”
How do listeners do that?
- Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.
- Good listeners periodically ask “good questions” so it is a two-way dialog.
- Good listening includes interactions that build a person’s self-esteem.
- Good listening is experienced as a cooperative (not competitive) conversation. (Lawyers listen up)
- Good listeners tend to make suggestions. This may seem contrary to the advice above about avoiding jumping in with solutions but perhaps the key is the “how” and “when”. People may be more likely to accept suggestions from those they already know are good listeners.
Principle: Think of good listening as a healthy two-way conversation.
Most of us have a lot to learn about effective listening. Dad, I think you were really on to something here. Thank you.
Note 1: Thanks to Prof. John Lande for linking to this article and the research on high quality listening.
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