The Power of Listening

Many years ago I learned an invaluable life tip. One of my teachers always stressed how we have one mouth and two ears; and that listening is far more valuable than just talking.

Have you ever asked someone to do something and they nod their heads and “yes, yes” you only to have them return with a result only remotely related to what you asked for?

There are a number of reasons for this:  they may be distracted, you may be distracted, they may not understand what you’ve said, and/or are afraid or “too cool” to ask for clarity, or you may not have explained it well – all of these have to do with weak listening skills.

What gets in the way of listening?

As a coach and consultant, listening is a critical ability.   It is one that I have found to be underutilised both by myself and often by others around me.  Listening is, without a doubt, one of the toughest skills to master as we need to uncover the deeper barriers within ourselves. Yet it is one of the most important skills we need to develop as we move to more demanding roles and relationships.

Judith E. Glasser, an organizational anthropologist and executive coach, has written a wonderful book called Conversational Intelligence – about the art of conversations and the critical element of listening.  There are four harmful listening habits*, which I wanted to share with you.

1.  Noise-in-the-attic listening. When we sit silently while others talk, we appear to be listening; inwardly, however, we are listening to the noise in the attic—disengaged from the speaker’s ideas and involved in our own mental processes. Such listening tends to develop when we are told as children: “Don’t talk while I’m speaking!” “Don’t interrupt me!” “Don’t ask so many questions!” Conditioned by these warnings, many of us become preoccupied with our own internalizations: “Who does she think she is?” Or, we resort to reverie—returning from time to time to listen to what is being said.

Tip: The talk in our head can take over our listening and become what we remember. Our self-talk becomes more prominent in our minds than what our ears hear. If the self-talk contains catalytic and emotional phrases like “Don’t interrupt me,” or if the words communicate judgment such as, “you stupid idiot,” our brains produce neuro-chemicals that activate our fear-networks in the primitive brain, closing down our executive brain, the prefrontal cortex. When the chemistry of fear turns this off, we forfeit empathy, trust, and good judgment. We lose our ability to handle complexity, and resort to old thoughts rather than process what is happening in the moment.

To prevent noise-in-the-attic listening, become aware when your brain is full of I-centric self-talk and turn it off. Instead, listen to connect to the other person and focus on we. By attending to the other person and removing the judgment, you create a neutral listening place in your brain to hear what others are saying without judgment. This mind shift also activates the mirror neurons, enabling you to experience the meaning others bring to their words, to connect, to build trust, and to make others feel safe to open up to you.

2.  Face-value listening. We think we are hearing facts, when we are hearing interpretations. In face-value listening, the listener isn’t mentally checking back to see whether the words explain what they purport to explain. This explains why people can differ dramatically in their perceptions. Many of us hear what’s in our heads, rather than listening to connect with what others are really saying. Good listening requires guided attention to the meanings others are bringing to life.

Tip 2: When we listen, we bring our own interpretations to the words we hear. We try to match what we think and know with what we are hearing. Our brains are designed with internal filing cabinets, which hold our personal history of experiences plus our own dictionary of what words mean. Too often, we listen with face-value listening, thinking that others share the same dictionary—when we don’t.

To prevent face-value listening, remember that your dictionary differs from that of others. Take the time to ask questions for which you have no answers. Rather than thinking you know what they mean, listen for distinctions—and ask questions that will bring out the meanings others have in mind and create new insights.

3. Positional listening. Such highly partial listening can lead to faulty assumptions and destroy team morale. For example, a leader might listen to her president’s annual report to determine whether her division will be growing. What she hears could affect her performance and her relationships with co-workers.

Tip 3: When we are fearful about our role, or when there is high uncertainty about the future, our mind seeks clues assuring we have a secure place in our tribe. Our fears about where we belong in the pack influence how we listen, feel, and engage with others.

To prevent positional listening, engage with others around shared success and how you can support each other’s success. This we-centric conversation shifts the attention from you and your fears to positively connecting with others. Once we know that they are friends, not foes, we bond and trust them.

4.  Navigational listening. Navigational listening—the art of listening to connect, to partner, and to perform better—is the most we-centric form of listening. Navigating with others leads to an expanded view of what is possible, often ending in a decision, strategy, change in behaviour, or point of view. This highest and most expansive form of listening engages you with others in a spirit of co-creation, elevates your conversational intelligence, and exponentially elevates your chances for mutual success.

Tip 4: When we shift from I-centric to WE-centric thinking, we enhance our partnership in co-creating the future. The prefrontal cortex, the executive brain, is where empathy, trust, good judgment, strategic thinking, emotional regulation and foresight into the future reside. When we listen to connect, we build bridges from my brain to yours, enabling the capacity to hold a broader view. Conflict gives way to co-creation, and the conversations shifts from the past to the future.

To enhance navigational listening, note when you fall into positional behaviours, defend your point of view, and be right at all cost. Become sensitive to how your need to be right might be creating resistance in others. If you can’t turn off this addiction in your mind, write down what your brain is saying—this acknowledges your thoughts and ideas and releases their grip on your mindset. Then, refocus your attention on the listening to connect.

By understanding what can shut down your listening, you can improve this important skill to enable you to align people, decisions and agendas.  So what gets in the way of your listening?

Take some time to reflect on this month’s Matters and how it might apply to you, and get in touch if we can help.

* These were sourced from her article “Navigational Listening – put conversational intelligence to work” posted at on February 28, 2014.

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