Listen carefully

On a lot of my courses, one of the things I talk about is a much beloved theory of L&Ders – Active Listening. But I think I do all of the people attending a disservice. It’s actually at a point where I’m thinking of scrapping the term altogether. Why? It makes a lot of sense. It’s commonly accepted as being a core skill of effective leaders and effective team members. It’s also probably one of the most used theories by L&Ders across the business world. So what’s wrong with it? Well, essentially I’m training you how to manipulate those you come into contact with.

Run that by me again? I’m training you to manipulate others? Well, yes. I’m telling you to enact a set of behaviours that make it seem like your listening. You have to show ‘attending’ type behaviours, and you have to paraphrase and summarise. Together, these show that you’re actively listening. Allegedly. Actually, together they show that you’ve given the impression you’ve listened.

There’s a camp of people who will say that in order to learn a behaviour, you have to pretend you’re doing it first. And through practise it can become habit, and then you’ve learned it. I’m not so convinced. Not with a basic human interaction as listening. I think what we’ve fooled ourselves into believing is that we can learn how to show we’re listening and this will create an environment of openness and a collegiate atmosphere.

Well, not really. We’re building an environment of constructive comments, positive sentiment and good faith, but not truly through listening. More through processes and through the such like.

If we listen to others, we do it fully and wholly. We give ourselves to others. And we do this willingly. Not through compulsion due to responsibilities we might have. Not through a feeling of duty to the company we work for. Not through a sense of having to do the right thing for a good impression. Not because we have to achieve goals, or ascertain motivations. But because we genuinely want to. We. Genuinely. Want. To.

What does that mean? Is it being mindful? Is it being embodied? Is it being humanistic? Is it being an effective leader? Is it being an influencer? Yes. All of the above and more. When you are with your dearest and nearest you don’t actively think about how you’re listening to others. It happens. When there’s important things to discuss, you don’t stop and mentally check off if you’re paraphrasing or summarising appropriately. You give yourself to the other person. When you’re having an intimate conversation with someone, you don’t start taking notes. You just shut up and hear what’s to be said. That’s what listening is about.

We can’t do this at work. Because we limit ourselves. We limit ourselves because of perceived constraints and perceived barriers. When Bob came to your desk, did you listen? Or did you have one eye on your phone, the other on incoming emails, and your third eye thinking about the project you’re working on? I bet you did something like this. You think you were listening. And you’re fooling yourself. Worse, you’re fooling the other person. Bob may be no better at listening than you, but that doesn’t excuse your lack of listening.

I’d like to think I listen as I’ve described. But I don’t. I’m busy like you. Fools, aren’t we?

Assume Innocence

Some weeks back I wrote about seeking to understand where someone is coming from before making yourself understood. In essence it was a post about empathy, but I was also talking about brooching taboo topics.

There is another side to this. If we are to seek to first understand we must also listen to what someone has to say. Mel Buckenham wrote a post not long ago about how we listen. To build on that, there is something about the message we are hearing and the assumption we’re making about our audience.

Working with someone recently on their understanding of how to think of an audience they remarked “oh yes, we should always assume our audience is stupid.” This wasn’t meant in a rude or derogatory way, but I don’t like the phrase. You’re immediately taking the power away from the person you’re talking with, and that just doesn’t bode well. It may not be harmful but it certainly won’t be positive or encouraging a relationship.

Instead, I think we should start from a point of assuming innocence. It’s a simple turn of phrase that gives new direction and focus for the person we’re speaking with. There does seem to be far too many who will assume cynicism and indeed stupidity with no hesitation. I understand it, but certainly done abide it.

Assuming innocence sits nicely with the Intelligent Behaviours theory I’ve spoken about before. If we think about the other person as being innocent it allows so much more interactivity and flow of discussion. It also allows you to ask questions and point out flaws without seeming negative. It involves actively changing your thinking so that the language you use becomes more collegiate and constructive. You share the power of the conversation because you haven’t already taken it away with your own assumptions.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Last night, Twitter raised something interesting that I’d like to pick up and continue this morning. How do you raise a taboo topic without insulting anyone, being accused of using offensive language or not being politically correct enough? Crikey, there’s a lot in that. Genuine discussion is what the essence of this is about, and I think is something we can get easily swayed on.

I remember a saying that goes “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. And I think that’s what the important thing is to do. Too often so do we see people happy to just be understood, without taking the time to understand the situation first.

The consequences of the latter approach is clear, and we see it everyday. We get annoyed because we have half a story, we make assumptions about the rest, we believe we’re right, and then we form an opinion and a belief. Sometimes things get said. Sometimes things fester. Sometimes people are rude. Sometimes you just don’t talk to others.

For me, now, I often start at a point of empathy. If I don’t understand and take the time to appreciate what you’re saying, how can I form an opinion on it? I learned some hard rules about assumptions I carried with me until I started work proper. And my biggest learning was that I had very little basis on which my assumptions were based.

But, I recognise that not everyone wants to do this, has the time to, or is able to. Which is where I think education helps. From those that know, and from those that understand something well enough that they can inform others objectively.

Topics like obesity, immigration, politics, sexual health, rape, and myriad others, are all very interesting and deserve a lot of attention. There are those who do this genuinely, and they should be applauded. However, I think we’re also guilty of relying on media sources to give us our opinions. That’s nothing new, but as a people we’re quite lazy, and are happy for someone else to do the digging while we get on with our busy lives.

So, this is just a collection of thoughts really, nothing quite coherent, except this. If you come across a topic that you are ignorant about, take the time to understand it as fully as you can. Only then can you help yourself, and help others.