Box of Crayons Blog


The S*@!% You Make Up That Stops You From Listening Well

No doubt you’ve heard of Active Listening. It’s corporate training speak for, ah-hem, listening.

It seems this is a pretty elusive skill. Sure, we’ve all mastered Mostly Listening or Kind Listening or Appear To Be Listening. But Actually Listening? Not so easy. As I look to my own failings – a never ending source of inspiration – I notice I’ve got three standard responses that help me to not hear what’s being said. I think I can claim to expert at #3, and I’m pretty good at #1 too. Oh, and #2. #2 as well. Which one most strikes a chord for you?

(There’s a suggested solution right after, so keep reading…)

1. The Paratrooper Go! Go! Go! Intervention

Ten to 30 seconds into this conversation, and you’re certain what it’s about. Further details completely unnecessary. The red light is flashing, the cargo door has opened and you’ve primed your suggestions and solutions ready to be parachuted into the conversations. All you need now is for a split-second break in the other person’s monologue, and -Go!- you can take control and save the day.

2. The Initiate Defence Shields Response

It’s clear right away that this isn’t a conversation. It’s an attack on everything you stand for. Not only your ideas or performance, but quite possibly your very right to exist in this cruel and unfeeling universe.

Star Trek it, and bring up the defence shields. Dodge and weave. Clearly you must focus on avoiding as much damage as possible, which may mean launching a few missiles of your own.

3. The Mmm-hmm Habit

As the familiar conversation starts, you allow it to flow over you and around you without it actually ever touching you. Using your soothing Fake Active Listening Skills you mutter mmm-hmms, encourage with “right, of course” and nod subtly but encouragingly at the right times.

All this allows you to carry on with the interesting thoughts that are otherwise tripping around inside your head.

Build a New Listening Habit

So what are we to do? How will you build a better listening habit? I’m experimenting with something called Full Body Listening. Here are the four steps for FBL, and there might be something useful here for you too.

1. Turn Away From Distractions. Face the Other Person.

I’ve come to the conclusion that your body leads your brain. If you want to think and feel differently, then do something differently with your body. It’s no accident that this is one of the most popular TED talks.

Can you remember a time when someone gave you their full attention when listening, were really present? Compare it to the more common experience of being given less than the full monty. You’re after the first state of affairs here.

A brand new habit for you might be to engage your body in listening but using it to leave the thing you’re doing, and to turn and face the person who’s speaking. (On the phone? Bring that person to mind and put your attention on them there.)

2. API: Assume Positive Intent.

Someone’s trying to engage? We tense a little, crouch a little and get ready to manage as best we can what’s about to come our way. Who knows what it will be? Maybe they’ll want something from you, maybe they’ll be on the attack, maybe they’re trying to sucker you into something. Why else would they want to talk?

Why indeed. What else might be going on here? If you framed the conversation as one driven by positive intent, what changes? Rather than slip into Fight or Flight mode, stay open to the best of what’s there. How do you do that? Let your body do the work for you. What pose do you naturally fall into when you’re in an open state of mind? (You might find it useful to watch this TED talk from my friend Mark, and learn about the Truth Plane.)

3. Be Curious as to What They Need

Marshall Rosenberg in his work around nonviolent communication teased apart the difference between wants and needs. When I first heard about this, I assumed we were talking about the difference between what I’d like to have and what I must have, but it’s more subtle and useful than that.

Wants are the presenting demand, be it a cup of coffee to the report by the end of the day. Needs, according to Rosenberg, and the deeper human drivers. He identifies these core seven: connection, autonomy, meaning, play, honesty, peace and physical well-being.

When you’re listening, listen below the surface to see what they’re really hungry for. Win double points for listening to yourself, and discerning what you need from this conversation too.

4. Know That Listening May Be Enough

Do you notice, as you listen, your body twitching to leap into action? To jump in, jump up, jump around and offer ideas, solutions, your point of view, your that-makes-me-think-of?

Now’s the time to calm your body down. Ride the wave and let it pass. Sometimes, often in fact, you don’t need to provide an answer. Your job may to be just hold the space for a conversation.

Listening deeply and fully and well is often all that’s being asked of you.

Now What?

Ok, speak to me. I’m listening. What was useful here? What are you going to do differently? What suggestions or insights would you add?

Extra reading if you’re keen

If you’d like extra reading on this, I’d encourage you to check out What We Say Matters, a useful take on nonviolent communication, and We Need to Talk from my friend and master coach Andrea Lee.

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