How does it feel when someone really takes the time to listen to us? And not just to serve their own agenda or needs – but to really hear us and to seek to understand what we’re trying to communicate and / or our perspective on a matter. It feels pretty good, in fact it feels really good, and yet when was the last time someone really listened to you to the point where you felt fully ‘heard’ and understood? Hopefully it was recently- though research says that even though we thrive on communication and relationships, we humans are generally not very good at listening to other people in return.
Articulating what we need
Few of us are skilled in the art of articulating what we need, calmly and clearly, no matter how we are feeling, all of the time, and those who are more skilled have probably put a lot of time and effort into learning how to communicate clearly and effectively and how to manage themselves in the process. Like most people, few of our colleagues, team members, managers, and direct reports will be highly skilled in clearly communicating their needs and perspectives all of the time, so as leaders we need to get increasingly skilled in understanding what others are seeking to communicate to us.
Listening for the other person’s needs in communication
If we want to really learn about our organisation, colleagues, staff and teams, we do need to listen well. In fact, research cited by Garvey Berger and Johnston has found that listening is the most important leadership competency of all – and that good listening skills can make up for other areas where leadership competency is less developed. Well developed listening skills are vital for building trust and relationships, for having difficult or learning conversations as discussed in an earlier blog, and are also essential for gathering information and intelligence about what is really happening in real time within a team, an organisation and/ or a complex system.
As the year draws to an end, why not make 2017 the year you develop your listening skills further and get into some great listening habits with these two suggestions below.
- Managing yourself through learning and practising present moment awareness (mindfulness) skills will help you to be aware what your mind is focusing on at any point in time, and will help you to be more able to direct your attention where you want it to go. Experiment with listening to a piece of music and really hear the different instruments, give it your full attention and notice on a moment by moment basis what the different sounds are. In conversations, pay attention to the other person and to the conversation, ask yourself ‘where is my mind right now?’- if it’s not on the conversation, notice this, then gently choose to turn your attention back to the present moment and the other person. This helps you to learn to notice what is in your own mind on a moment by moment basis in response to other people. What thoughts are arising about others, are there thoughts of judgement, comparison, frustration? Notice them and see them for what they are – as thoughts, mental events, which may not be facts. Learn to describe what is happening internally on a moment by moment basis as if you are a journalist recording an event ‘I am aware there is a feeling of frustration’. This gives you insight into yourself, and can open up a small moment of time to allow you to then choose how to best respond to the situation. Learning mindfulness skills like this is like building a muscle in your brain, the more you practice, the easier it gets.
- Get curious about what other people are trying to communicate to you without judging them or the content of their words. This can help us to choose how to respond more effectively, and in a way which builds relationships and strengthens trust and communication. Much of the time people are really just trying to get their own needs met, which as we all know can easily lead to misunderstandings. I really like Marshall B Rosenberg’s ‘non violent communication’ as a framework to help me as a coach, leader and in my personal life to reach beneath the surface of what someone is saying in order to better understand the needs they are seeking to communicate. This helps me to be more effective in responding to their needs and to see whether there is anything I can do to help them meet their needs (or to use this method to communicate clearly and kindly if I can’t). Observing without evaluating is the first step, and a further step is seeking to understand other’s feelings and needs especially when they are angry, upset or frustrated and directing it at us. Questions like, ‘it sounds like you are feeling disappointed about xyz, can you tell me some more?’, ‘what do you need in this situation?’ can be helpful here to develop the conversation into areas where you can learn more about what is really going on for that person.
Learning to listen to other people requires purposeful action, time and effort. In return it is contagious- as the more people feel listened to, the more they are likely to feel heard and understood and are more likely to then listen to others. The gift of listening really is a gift that keeps on giving!
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