Let’s Take You Back
I’d like to ask you a question but to do so, !’ve got to take you back, maybe to a party or some other social gathering you attended before COVID-19, where you engaged in a conversation with someone you either didn’t know or didn’t know particularly well, and this other person was telling a story or anecdote of some sort. During the conversation, whilst the other person was talking, were you actively listening, or were you rather, trotting upstairs to the library inside your head to find a suitable story or anecdote with which you could respond?
Do you listen to respond, or listen to understand?
Some folk I’ve come across don’t even let the other person finish before they dig in with their response (also used to be me – see below), and when confronted about this, feel it’s a perfectly normal and acceptable way to conduct a conversation. About twenty years ago I remember asking a colleague a question and then butting in before he’d finished answering. His response was along the lines of “Why would you ask me a question if you’re not going to listen to the answer?” At the time I was a bit taken aback – this seemed a bit rude of him. But later, on reflection I realised it was I who was being rude. Since that conversation, I’ve tried to make a point of listening to the answer when I ask someone a question. I feel it’s kind of a respect thing.
Many years ago, I remember attending a business analysis course where during the week we were split up into groups of five and given assorted exercises to do. It quickly became clear in my group that there were many strong personalities, and we all wanted to have our say.
We didn’t seem to mind steamrolling over whom ever happened to be currently talking in order to get our own point across. You’ve watched The Apprentice, right? Kind of like that. Unlike so often happens in The Apprentice though, between us we identified the issue and the corresponding need to allow each other to finish and got into a habit of actually allowing the speaker to finish before speaking up.
It was a little formal and forced at first, with lots of indiscretions – after all it isn’t easy to change the habit of a lifetime – but to lighten the mood we introduced a “Baaarrrrp” system to highlight infringements (when one of us butted in, another would draw attention to it with a “Baaaarrrp!”), and we soon got the hang of waiting before pitching in.
In that business situation where we were collectively planning and developing our project, understanding each other was crucial and as a consequence, we performed far better as a team.
Day To Day This concept though is just as important in day to day life. The better we understand where someone is coming from, the better a map we have to meet them there, in business, in personal relationships, in teaching and in learning. I can recall numerous occasions as a driving instructor where listening to my clients enabled me to help them address an issue with their driving. Until I listened to them, I didn’t know what the issue was from their perspective, only from my own. As I used to suggest to my trainee instructors;
“Listen to your clients. Ask questions. Find out what they know already. Otherwise, how will you know what to teach?”
Passive And Active Listening I’ve recently finished reading Daniel H. Pink’s “To Sell Is Human” (awesome book) and one of the sections towards the end targets listening and discusses improvisational theatre training as a way to enhance one’s listening skills. Daniel talks about moving from passive and transactional listening towards active and engaged listening;
As in the example of the party at the beginning of this blog, if we’re thinking about what we’re going to say rather than considering what the speaker is saying, then we are only listening passively and the conversation becomes transactional; we trade comments, but we don’t engage as a listener.
Engage As a Listener
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Epictetus, Ancient Greece.
There are lots of methods we can use to actively engage as a listener; here are just two of them but they are both gems;
Firstly, we can make a point of waiting a few seconds (just two or three, any more and people will look at you strangely) after the current speaker has finished before opening our own mouths. If this means someone else immediately jumps in with their story then listen to them too, then the same, wait a couple of seconds before pitching in.
Secondly, when you do speak, ask a question about what your conversation partner has just told you, rather than countering with your own story or opinion. This behaviour will not only make sure we’re engaging with them, but will also encourage them to engage with us.
One Last Question
To finish, I’d like to take you back to the party one more time and ask you another question;
Whom did you find more interesting, the people who spoke to you, or the people who listened to you?