We talk with enthusiasm and passion but we listen begrudgingly. This starts from a young age, when we’re encouraged to talk but not necessarily to listen. And as we progress in our professional careers there is even greater emphasis placed on talking – being the first to speak and often.
I’ve always been more of listener than a talker. Early on in my advertising career, there was concern from my managers that I didn’t speak up enough in meetings, especially client meetings. I believe you talk when you have something meaningful to say. Listening intently allows me to pick up valuable pieces of information and nuance that others miss.
Recently, I’ve been working with teams and groups on how to improve their listening skills. We start with a very simple exercise where each person has to listen to someone else speak for three minutes without saying a word. The initial response to the instructions from the listener usually evokes words such as “painful”, “agonizing” and “impossible”.
This exercise initially drives people crazy, because everyone wants to jump in and provide their two cents or take command of the conversation. However, when the listener is asked to debrief what they heard, it’s very rich, thoughtful and insightful. There is a lot of content and context. The person who is speaking, feels heard and appreciated. All this in only three minutes.
What does it mean to listen with intent?
- You focus completely on the other person and what they have to say. This means turning away from your electronic device, other distractions as well as your own agenda.
- Pay attention to their tone of voice. This can provide valuable information about a person’s emotional state that may not be coming through solely by their words. Sometimes people don’t know how to put it into words but their tone of voice says it all.
- Get curious about what they are saying or what you’re observing. Ask a question around something that sparks your interest. Then ask a second question and a third.
Make it a habit to get curious and ask questions before you speak. It will not only make the other person feel heard but you may learn something.
When I did finally speak up in a client meeting, which I still remember to this day, you would have thought I just parted the Red Sea. “Hallelujah”, he speaks. It’s not that I was afraid to speak or nervous; I just want to speak with purpose and intent.