Please Just Listen
Actually, there’s no “just” about it. Listening is often the hardest thing to do, if you really want to do it right.
I once worked with a group in an organization that had become so polarized that the necessary work was done when they met as a group, but they didn’t talk much to each other outside those meetings, and they certainly didn’t listen. They’d lost so much respect and trust for each other that there was none of the collaboration or collegiality that’s required for individuals to become a well-functioning team.
I always start a new project by interviewing everyone, so I listened in a setting without distractions, focused entirely on the speaker, and tried to be patient and understand the implications of what was being said, not just the content. All interviews were private and confidential, scheduled at the participant’s convenience, and given enough time so that a degree of rapport and trust in me personally could be developed. I used an interview protocol to organize the conversation and asked the same basic questions of all participants, but the discussions ranged to include what was most important to the participant, whether it was on my agenda or not. The main focus was the participant’s agenda, what that person needed for others to hear.
The primary problem when groups begin to be dysfunctional is that people simply don’t feel heard, and often I’m the first one in quite a while whose job is to pay attention and listen carefully. Others have very likely become impatient with the repetition that not listening engenders, and are no longer even polite. They dismiss whatever is said as repeating the “same old song,” or “telling the same story” and may be in the room, but not in the conversation.
It can sometimes be difficult to listen to people who feel they have not been heard for a while, even if you are not part of the group dynamic. They will often talk very quickly and in highly emotional tones because they feel they have to get everything out all at once and take advantage of the opportunity, not to speak, but to be heard, and the attention required can be hard to sustain. The key is to remember that this level of listening requires respect, something they are just beginning to feel from you as the listener. Speakers will slow down as they realize that you are paying attention and will not walk out on them.
That initial listening session changes the dynamic: Tensions are reduced because someone has actually listened; people know issues will be communicated to someone who will now pay attention because the information comes from a consultant. Suddenly, the things they’ve been saying for a long time have more credibility than they had before. And as an outsider, I can provide some coaching to group members on how to present ideas or change the approach, and to the group leader on how to manage frustration and get back to listening effectively.
Good listening requires that we turn off all the distractions, pay attention, be patient, and try to understand. That’s a lot to do even for a short period and even under the best of circumstances, but any time is a good time to start honing those skills and make someone else feel really heard and respected. The long-term benefits are well worth the investment.
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Listening is...a gift of profound respect
Dave Isay, Radio Producer