A new way to listen

A new way to listen

The next conversation you have today with a coworker, direct report or boss, think about what you are listening to as they talk to you. Be honest. Are you focused on their words or are you;

  • listening for opportunities to sound intelligent
  • listening for a chance to sound funny
  • listening to get information you want
  • listening to see how you can help
  • listening for how you can benefit
  • more…

David Rock wrote a fascinating book 10 years ago called Quiet Leadership in which he introduced new thinking about the impact of coaching on business performance and the links between coaching and neuroscience. The subtitle of the book is Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work.

One of the several profound points David makes in the book is about how we listen to others. He contends that we actually only listen a small percentage of the time, with the rest of our attention being put to judging, assessing, trying to sound smart, listening to distractions, trying to size people up or being self conscious to the point that we are only in fact listening to ourselves. Ouch!

I would add to David’s point by suggesting that we do an equally poor job listening to our customers or perspective customers, so I contend that this book is a wonderful guide for those of us within organizations who are client or prospective client facing.

Under what David calls A New Way to Listen, he suggests that a great leader listens for people’s potential. In other words, they encourage and support others in being the best they can be, just in how they listen, without saying a word. They listen to people as though that person has all the tools they need to be successful, and could simply benefit from exploring their thoughts and ideas out loud.

In order to achieve that level of listening we need what David calls The Clarity of Distance. Listening for potential requires a willingness to identify and put aside mental states that could cloud our ability to openly listen.

In the Clarity of Distance, there are four mental frames we can be stuck in that prevent our natural clarity.

  1. Lost in the Details
    Each work day is filled with massive amounts of information. As a result, with everything moving so quickly, we spend a lot of time lost in the details of our daily life. Listening to people as their potential requires that we stay above the details. We must not get lost in the tangled forest of information unable to see what is going on. Instead, we need to be the guide standing above the trees who can see the quality of the forest.When we find ourselves mired in the details of someone’s story, stop. Ask, “What was our objective in speaking today?” or “How long did we plan to spend on these details?”. David believes that just realizing we are lost in the details is enough to help us get back on track.
  2. Mislead by Our Filters
    Filters are the unconscious mental frames through which we see, the sum of our assumptions, predictions, and decisions about everything. Nothing wrong with filters since they are a tool for our survival–helping us process huge amounts of data. The challenge is that we tend to be unconscious of them and we all learned early on to do our best to make the world fit into the way we think it is.

    When our filters are accurate such as the filter “A bear is over there so I should get out of here.” they help us. However, most of us have developed filters about the people we lead and work with–filters we may not even be conscious of–and often they are based on incomplete information or inaccurate assumptions. As a result, we tend to listen to people through the filter we’ve created about them some time ago. When we listen through filters, we are fitting people into our predetermined boxes rather than listening for their potential.

    If you find yourself listing through a filter, step back and identify the filter you’ve created for them and actively choose to listen in a new way.

  3. Having an Agenda
    Whether we realize it or not, we have agendas for the people we lead. You might want them to succeed so that you look good as their manager. You might want them to be liked so they fit into a team. Or you might not want them to be more effective than you. All these agendas can cloud your ability to bring out the best in your people and your coworkers.

    Identifying an agenda is the key to being able to put it to one side. Perhaps even stating your agenda(s) out loud to yourself can help.

  4. Hot Spots
    A hot spot is an emotional connection on a particular issue that you share with the other person. An example might be a challenge your direct report has with a higher-up in your company, someone with whom you also have an issue. When coaching the person on their issue, you may be lost in the drama of the situation. You’re engaged emotionally and are therefore unable to listen objectively.

    David doesn’t have much to offer in the case of eliminating a hot spot other than to take some time away from the conversation. Addressing a charged issue at another time may be a better use of resources.

In summary, we all have the ability to listen to other people as their potential, but it’s very easy to get lost in the details, misled by our filters and agendas, or sidetracked by our hot spots. David believes that self awareness goes a long way to helping us understand those frames, and the book provides a number of tips and exercises to help us gain that self awareness that is so crucial to becoming effective–or as David puts it–quiet leaders.