How often do you show up for a meeting or a discussion, only to find your partner in a complete state of disarray, heavily distracted by telephones, email, social media, other employees stopping in to interject a thought or start a new conversation, etc. You get the picture! Or worse yet, they show up unengaged, unprepared, and don’t seem to be understanding or caring about what you’re telling them.
Through our research of several behaviors that create high levels of trust and credibility, active listening has emerged as the most critical behavior (by a significant margin) in the eyes of our respondents. With that in mind, what can we as consultants and subject matter experts do to sharpen those critical listening skills?
Researchers in effective communications have coined the term “immediacy in communications” to describe the set of behaviors which either lay the framework for an effective dialogue, or sow the seeds of disaster. Those researchers define immediacy as the way we signal our motivation to communicate freely, and the positive feelings we impart to our partner. These behaviors, both verbally and nonverbally, communicate that we are warm, involved, interested, and available to communicate. Verbal immediacy factors include how we use pronouns – are we using I and you, or we and us; our use of formal or informal manners of addressing our partners that are comfortable and appropriate; how open we are to sharing personal information and creating vulnerability; our use of compliments to open the communication paths. Nonverbal behaviors might involve cues such as touch, eye contact, distance and personal space, smiling, tone of voice. Most of our verbal and nonverbal behaviors tend to be instinctual. We need to develop strong awareness of our own behaviors and the cues our partners are giving us , to sense how we are behaving and how it’s hitting our partner.
So, what are the traps, and how can we avoid them?
Here is a list of five behavior traps which work against our immediacy, and ultimately diminish the quality of our listening and our understanding of our partner. For each trap, we offer some ideas about how to avoid them.
Walking in without a true sense of engagement and honest motivation to help: Your partner will quickly sense if you’re not truly interested and engaged, and will begin defending themselves against your disinterest. Before the meeting, try to motivate yourself by finding some element of the situation, your relationship and past history with them, or a thread from a previous conversation that you can pick up on and pursue with interest.
Failing to align with the where they are coming from: Examples might include failing to pick up on emotions that are working in them at the time, their point of view on the topic at hand, cultural differences and primary language. Before the conversation, do some homework about them if you don’t know them well, what you might anticipate to be their emotional state, some appropriate due diligence on their business, their role, their background (LinkedIn is great for this). You should walk in knowing what’s reasonable to know and ready to get to the meat of the discussion.
Failing to provide real-time feedback that lets them know you are really listening and have processed what they’ve told you: Examples might be shallow feedback that either indicates you weren’t listening, or weren’t comprehending what they were trying to tell you. Try “reframing” or summarizing in your own words not only what they said, but how they feel about it, what the impact is likely on them, and other comments that indicate that you thought through the implications of what they’ve told you.
Making it about you: A common faux pas is interjecting a personal story, even if relevant, which breaks the flow of what your partner is trying to tell you. It comes across as if you have hijacked the discussion. Instead, show empathy and maybe an indication that you’ve had a similar experience, but avoid providing so much detail that you break the flow of their story.
Being too eager to prescribe ideas for how to fix the problem at hand: We often listen just enough to find a common story in our repertoire and immediately go there, complete with detailed instructions about just how to solve their problem. Metaphorically this would be the same as the doctor prescribing brain surgery when we walk in complaining of a headache. We haven’t earned the right, yet, to go to prescribing action. One common tip is, when you sense that you’re about to make a recommendation for action, shut that down, and substitute another question. Dig in on your discovery questions, until you are sure you understand the issue and they have validated that you understand it. When you get there, then you can invite them to move into brainstorming and action planning if they really want it. When the active listening is really working, they often discover the path forward for themselves, through the dialogue. Before you go to action planning, ask permission and validate that they are ready and wanting to go there.
Active listening is not easy work, but it’s critical to build the relationship and the communications path which is critical to earning our partners’ trust and credibility.
Come to important conversations caring, committed, and prepared, and listen twice as much as you talk.