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After all my years of working with groups and coaching leaders, there’s something that remains astonishingly rare—good listening skills.
I realized several years ago that I was a crappy noticer. My epiphany came while playing Pictionary, and I couldn’t draw a basic household item. It wasn’t about being a good artist, but that I couldn’t even bring the item’s details into my mind’s eye. I started paying attention to how often this happened in my life, including how well I listened (or not) to my friends, co-workers, and family. By the time I enrolled in graduate school 18 years ago, I was painfully aware that I needed to grow in my listening and noticing skills. And I’ve been working on them ever since.
And that’s the thing—they are skills. It’s not just that you’re a good listener or you are not. In fact, it’s quite unusual to be a good listener without having worked at it. Many people I meet would call themselves pretty good listeners. Usually, they are wrong.
We’re often listening to respond rather than listening to understand. Sometimes, that’s just friends riffing off one another, and it’s fun. But sometimes the stakes are much higher, and the whole interaction could be transformed with some good listening. This is especially true when conflict or tension are present. If you have the presence of mind to say something like, “Say more about that,” or “It sounds like you’ve been frustrated with me for awhile,” time might stop for a moment. What?! You’re not denying, deflecting, or defending? What planet did you come from?!
If you want the advanced class, there’s a step beyond good listening, which is furthering the dialogue. I find it unsatisfying when someone listens, and then has little to say afterward. Maybe they have learned how to tune into me, but I want the interaction to go beyond that. This is where the skills of paraphrasing, summarizing, or empathic highlighting come in handy. My friend Steve (one of the best listeners in my life) and I have taught whole workshops on this. You can try something like:
  • I hear that you’re upset with your boss, but also that you’re upset with yourself. This sounds like a really intense time for you. (Note the absence of problem-solving!)
  • Are you feeling left out? (Empathic highlighting. I like trying to name a feeling much better than the overwhelming question, “How are you feeling about this?” The speaker can always say, “No! I’m not feeling left out. I’m feeling _________!” Taking a guess gives the speaker a chance to get more specific.)
  • I’m listening or I’m here. Or just silence. And you don’t need to vigorously nod or pepper in a lot of “uh-huh’s.” Sometimes we go on automatic pilot because we’ve been taught “active listening” skills, and those are more for us to look like we are listening rather than actually listening. I’ve taught workshops where I make a rule that participants can’t rely on those behaviors.
  • Let me interrupt for a second—I want to see if I’ve got this. Interrupting to summarize is a favorite tool of mine. Sometimes people repeat themselves because they are anxious, or because they don’t think you’re really listening. Meanwhile, the conversation isn’t advancing at all. This is when you’re allowed to break the “no interrupting” rule. Interrupt to summarize, and usually the energy goes down a notch, and the speaker sees how well you are really listening.
I’m a big fan of getting support from a coach or therapist, of course, but we shouldn’t need to pay someone to listen to us. These are skills that anyone can learn, and they are the difference between feeling bored or annoyed in our relationships or going deeper. Try it—tell me how it goes!
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