Is there too much talk about the importance of listening?

Is there too much talk about the importance of listening?  We don’t think there is in fact we would probably say there isn’t enough.

Recently I had the experience of having a significant personal issue to face.  Two people close to me approached listening very differently.  One just listened and showed that I was heard.  My other close confidante stepped quickly into advice and problem solving and with good intentions pointed out how some of my thinking was flawed.  Though both of them had my absolute best interests at heart, the contrast in how I felt was significant and prompted this article.  Because there was high emotion involved I can say that when there is problem solving instead of just listening it can:

  • Feel like the issue is then about the other person
  • Lead to a feeling of being shut down before feelings have been expressed
  • Suggest a sense of judgement about how you are thinking or approaching an issue.

Being really listened to has these benefits:

  • Builds a strong sense of connection to the listener
  • Validates our experience and stops us feeling isolated and alone
  • Helps to understand what is happening to us by allowing processing and thinking
  • Assists problem solving by helping to order our thoughts and concerns

It’s hard to find anyone who will say being listened to isn’t useful and important or hasn’t made them feel validated and valued.

In our development work with leaders, we often see that people can know or believe they know, essential skills such as active listening but we see consistently, limitations in putting this knowledge into practice.  For this reason, we focus on how to do the skills well, the practical application, to reduce the gap between knowing and doing.  The other often underestimated part of having great skills is the ongoing self-awareness and self-discipline needed to consistently do it well.

To really listen to some-one (as opposed to just keeping half an ear in the conversation and nodding) requires self-discipline and focus.  To do this:

  • Put aside your concerns and give your attention to the other person
  • Manage your inner voice – chatter, judgements and distractions
  • Sit with the discomfort of challenging emotions
  • Embrace silence and moments of pause
  • Watch and listen to gather up the whole message
  • Respect what they are saying – this doesn’t mean you have to agree with what is being said
  • Validate – including by saying ‘that makes sense because…’.

There are other requirements which also take energy, focus and self-discipline:

  • Don’t try to solve the problem or fix the issue
  • Even if a way forward seems clear or you have had the same or a similar experience, avoid giving advice or telling the other person what to do. Doing this can be so hard if the ‘right solution’ seems obvious to you!
  • Don’t join in by adding your experience to the conversation unless it is asked for – keep the focus on them until the time for listening is finished.

I know these tips are an ongoing work in progress for me particularly in times of high emotion.

What challenges do you have in being the best listener you can be?

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