Active Listening: seek to understand first

Be an active listener_ seek to understand first.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. – Stephen R.Covey

“Knowledge is power” as the famous statement goes, however to gain useful knowledge we must listen properly. Listening well is not as simple as just being silent and waiting your turn to speak, it’s so much more than just hearing. Listening is an active process by which we make sense of, assess, and respond to what we hear. Being a good listener is a vital skill of a manager and it is it is not something that should be taken for granted as it is an ability that is learned and maintained with hard work.

Being a good listener is an important skill of a great manager.

Listening cycle

How we listen and compute data can be broken down into the following 5 stages: 1.receiving, 2.understanding, 3.evaluating, 4.remembering and then 5.responding. How the listener responds in stage 5 is dependent upon the listening experience which took place during stages 1-4. During stages 1-4 we should aim to do active listening, as a good response from a management perspective, must be one capable of creating the needed emotional response and resulting action from the other party. Managers who are frequently able to create win/win scenarios are undoubtedly active listeners and  good receivers of information as the only way they can find third ways and make them palatable to the other party is via understanding what that interest group was saying and the reasons why they were saying it.

Leaders able to create win/win scenarios are nearly always active listeners.

An active listener in stage 1: “receiving” has a clear mind and is ready to receive information. They avoid taking emotional prejudices into their listening experience and have the mental discipline to prevent themselves going with pre-set responses before they have heard and taken in all the information. They will have the openness to learn from listening and hence amend attitudes and opinions based upon the information that comes to light.  Because of this, they will generally have more measured and fair responses. Normally we can not prepare ourselves for most listening experiences, however for some like set feedback with a difficult employee or a challenging client call, we can plan to first clear our mind of our thoughts and prejudices and enter into the conversation with as open mind as possible so we able to listen and receive without baggage. Even taking a quick toilet break before what you deem like a difficult impromptu conversation can help too.

Meditation can be powerful way of clearing you mind and preparing it for a real listening experience.

For stages 2+3: “understanding” and “evaluating” to happen effectively, the listener should avoid computing the data autobiographically which is why entering the listening experience with a clear mind is so important.  Interpreting information as a reflection of your own experiences, rather than through the story teller’s actual information, is one of the most common failures of listeners. One of the problems of autobiographical listening is that it deceives the listener into thinking they know the answer before they have heard all the information, i.e. they switch off after they have found their pre-set experience to compare to. Also it is naturally frustrating for the speaker to have their experience interpreted via someone else’s, rather than how it should be, which is via their own unique experience. When the topic being communicated is something upsetting and personal, the most harmful consequence of autobiographical listening, is that it sidetracks the listening from identifying the real route emotional feeling upsetting the speaker. As by thinking of your own experience you also identify with your own emotions you felt during and after that experience, when you really should be helping the speaker identify their own route emotions. For example, teenagers feeling their problems are more judged through their parents own experiences and values, rather than listened to and understood through their own, is one of the explanations they often give for being uncomfortable opening up to their parents. The same is true of many staff-boss relationships.

Autobiographical listening sidetracks the listener from being able to emphasize with the route emotional feeling the speaker is trying to express.

In stage 4 “remembering” it is important to bear in mind what you remember from a conversation is completely dependent on how we interpreted the information during stages 1-3. As we learned above, active listening is: first clearing your mind of prejudices that could be carried into your listening experience and then it is being disciplined to allow what you hear to be un-corrupted by your own experience and opinion. The final stage of effective active listening is to repeat back in your own words what the speaker has said. It is important you do not mix your opinion in with this summary, as what you are seeking to do is ensure that you have understood what was attempted to be communicated, over giving your opinion on it (that is the responding stage). It is important to invite the speaker to correct you if they feel you have summarized something incorrectly. The objective is that you show you have understood what was said, separately from expressing your opinion or giving advice on it.

It is important to bear in mind most people can not articulate perfectly what they want to say, which is why it is always beneficial to repeat back what you believe them to have said.

The final thing to consider before responding is why the person is communicating, as this should in part, influence how you respond. People communicate problematic issues for many reasons but broadly speaking, in the work place, these can be broken down to the following 4 reasons which of course interlink to some degree: 1.) to seek advice or guidance, 2.) to share a concern or burden, 3.) to seek emotional or practical support or 4.) to trigger a reaction in the listener.

Before you respond it is important to consider the underlying reason why the person was communicating the issue to you.

Depending on the underlying reason for communicating, the speaker will be more or less open to certain types of feedback. This is especially true to the first responses you give. For example in the case of seeking advice, the speaker will be more open to immediately receiving a suggested course of action to follow than in the other cases. However, if the person is mainly seeking emotional support or to share a burden, then responding with suggested solutions is far less likely to be well received. In these cases what would be better received is a response which show the listener recognizes the difficulties of the situation. Likewise if the speaker is trying to trigger a reaction in the listener, i.e. to get them to show appreciation, then the speaker is unlikely to be open to listening to anything until the thing they wanted to trigger has at least to some degree been satisfied. Of course as a boss you can’t listen like a friend, you do need to achieve something out of the situation, however by showing you have understood and respected the staff member’s underlining reason for communicating a problematic issue, you will make them more open to what things you have to say to create the change or response you want.

If you show you have understood the person’s reason for communicating, you make them more willing to listen to what you have to say.

So as you strive to be best leader you can be, remember that to influence you must understand and to understand you must listen actively. Active listening is a difficult process that takes discipline but it is one which gives enormous benefits when done well. Active listening helps work towards win/win scenarios and done well shows your staff that you care about what they have to say. Respected leaders who people follow nearly always listen more than they speak. So the next time you listen, do so actively and seek to understand first and be understand second.

Good Listener

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. — Epictetus


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