Monday, June 25, 2012

Are You Really a Great Listener?

What Makes Great Listeners?

In a Harvard Business Review article, Ram Charan wrote a piece called The Discipline of Listening. In the article, he provided effective techniques to ensure good listening and emphasized the cost of being unaware. What he left out though, was the source of poor listening.

We are taught to make eye contact with the person speaking to us. We are even taught to lean towards the speaker to assure them we are listening. Nonetheless, when there are two people in a conversation, there are at least
four conversations occurring simultaneously.

Two of these conversations are simply that: two people speaking to each other. The other two however, are two people speaking to themselves. Both people are having conversations with themselves about streaming thoughts running through their minds. In fact, sometimes those streaming conversations have nothing to do with the subject being discussed. In other cases, the thoughts are about the speaker or listener. Those thoughts would be called judgments or assessments.

I often do an exercise with groups, simulating this plethora of conversations that occur when people are supposedly listening. I have people work in pairs. One person speaks about something important. The other person is to say anything out loud while the first is speaking. While this seems rude, it replicates what happens in every conversation.

This exercise gets everyone’s attention. It indicates why they miss a lot of what is being said to them.

The good news is that most of what you think was given to you. That is, you have nothing to do with most of what you think. The bad news is that you have no idea how to turn it off. If you sit and think nothing, you will have thoughts and images running through your mind like they are cars on a highway during rush hour traffic.

Yet, many people ask after the exercise: “how do I stop the thoughts”? The answer is you don’t unless you are doing yoga or meditation. In Ram’s article he gives techniques like writing what is being said to you or repeating back to the speaker what you heard. I endorse these techniques.

At some point though, people need to manage the ongoing stream of conversations running through their minds. Practice distinguishing the conversations you have in your own mind.

When someone is speaking to you, stop them before they start. Let them know that you have a tendency to have a busy mind and you would like a few seconds to quiet your thoughts in order to focus on what they are saying. The fact you acknowledge this implies power. It is a way of putting the spotlight on a distraction. That way the distraction becomes less significant and you are able to listen to the speaker with less noise in your mind.

Being a great listener requires a big commitment. Acknowledging the silent distractions in your mind is a way to become bigger than those thoughts and to provide true undivided attention to the speaker.

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic.

Link to HBR article by Ram Charan:

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