The Discipline of Listening

Our brains make it difficult, if not impossible, to fully or accurately comprehend what our Communication Partners wish to convey. We hear their words, of course, but we often end up interpreting them well outside the intent of the Speaker. I spent 3 years researching and writing on this topic for a book, (What?) and came away in awe of the magnitude of this issue and how deeply our unconscious choices prejudice our conversations.

The Problem with Goal-Center Listening

As a coach to coaches, sellers, and managers, I’m painfully aware of how sellers often listen only to ‘recognize a need’, or coaches listen for a problem they’ve had success resolving before, or managers listen for a difficulty they know how to regulate.

By listening for something specific, we end up taking away a myth as meaning. With mischaracterized and potentially inaccurate data (compounded over the length of the conversation), we then have no accurate data with which to base follow-on decisions, not to mention that everyone potentially walks away from the conversation with mistaken beliefs, feelings, and expectations. And then we blame the Other for any failure. Sadly, because our brains don’t tell us they have misunderstood or biased what was meant (we actually believe we’ve ‘heard’ accurately), we’re rarely aware that we have missed the meaning or the possibility, until it’s too late.

Tips to Listen Accurately

Here are some questions to think about as you consider adding some discipline to your listening skills:

  1. Prepare and De-stress. Before each conversation, clear your mind of any expectations or hopes, or feelings from past conversations. Otherwise your brain will unconsciously seek confirmation (Confirmation Bias) for that very thing while ignoring or misconstruing possibilities (minimizing your chances of success or creativity).
  2. Humility and humor. Unless you have written a script that everyone speaking has signed off on, you have no way of knowing what your Communication Partner will say, mean, need, or feel. I often hear people attempt to push their own agenda and don’t recognize what the Other has conveyed. Since there is no such thing as win/lose, this tends to create lose/lose, although the offended Communication Partner might not mention it during the conversation.
  3. Flexibility. All conversations demand flexibility to be present to the messages within the dialogue that actually occurs. The larger the bias or expectation going in, the harder it is to achieve, the greater the gap in understanding and expectation, and the greater the fallout from unrealized possibility.
  4. Trust. I know it’s hard to walk away without getting exactly what you want, or to hear things that don’t match your needs or expectations, but somewhere in the conversation there is a creative win for everyone. It may not look or act like your dream, but it will be something that everyone can accept. Besides, if you’re not trusting the dialogue actually occurring, you’re merely pushing your own agenda. And then you can’t even trust the outcome you’ve devised.

Unless both sides of a conversation fully understand what the Other intends to convey, there is no reality to work with and everyone risks unnecessary failure or limited possibility: it might have been possible to achieve success in a different way, or maintain a relationship over time for future possibilities. In almost every in-person coaching session I have had, my client has missed real possibilities (even of getting exactly what they want) in pursuit of hearing what they believe they should hear.

Here are some questions to think about as you consider adding some discipline to your listening skills:

  • How adept are you at entering conversations with no needs, no expectations, no biases?
  • How capable are you of showing up in a conversation with the ability to have a We Space – not two “I’s” which lead nowhere except self-serving exchanges, but a genuine melding of the people involved to find the win for all?
  • What do you need to believe differently to recognize that when you enter conversations with personal biases, assumptions, and triggers, that you will only succeed those times when the Other has the exact same biases, assumptions, and triggers – and all those who could truly benefit from your expertise and heart will not be able to hear you either (regardless of how well-meaning or accurate you are)?
  • How willing are you to learn to show up with an open mind, recognize when you have biases or expectations and quiet them before starting the exchange?
  • How can you react to something you’re not prepared for in a way that encourages collaborative dialogue?

You can continue doing what you’ve been doing, of course. But for those times you seek excellence in your conversations, a bit of preparation is in order.


About the Author

Sharon Drew Morgen is a visionary, original thinker, and thought leader in change management and decision facilitation. She works as a coach, trainer, speaker, and consultant, and has authored 9 books including the NYTimes Business BestsellerSelling with Integrity. Morgen developed the Buying Facilitation® method (www.sharondrewmorgen.com) in 1985 to facilitate change decisions, notably to help buyers buy and help leaders and coaches affect permanent change. Her newest book What? www.didihearyou.com explains how to close the gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She can be reached at [email protected]

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