Deep listening skills are the foundation of strong relationships, respectful communication and responsive leadership.
Have you ever experienced being listened to? Completely and fully listened to? A space where you know that whatever you are saying matters to the other person; that they are keen to hear it and are giving you their undivided attention? How do you feel as you recall it?
Listening and the value of the exchange in great listening cannot be quantified.
Listening is not just a personal skill or a newly recognised leadership skill; it is an essential ‘relationship skill’. As J. Krishnamurti says “All life is a movement in relationship.” Our success and fulfillment at work and in the personal sphere depend heavily on relationships; and listening happens to be a core ‘relationship skill’.
What is a relationship skill?
Anything that helps you build meaningful and equitable connections is a relationship skill.
Most of us have a self-image, which tells us that we are great at listening.
Mr Niranjan, 48, is head of operations in his organisation. He is successful and doing well for himself. He heads a large team and considers himself a good leader. There is no doubt, during crisis situations he has held fort and taken the organisation and team through some very sticky situations. Madhur, his team member and a senior manager, comes to him with a problem. Madhur has proved himself to be a great performer and leader. He is experiencing a personal crisis at home with his wife’s complicated pregnancy, and is already stressed, so when the resignation of a key team member comes in as a surprise, he panics a little and rushes to Niranjan.
As soon as Niranjan hears of the resignation, he starts off on a tirade of solutions and actions that Madhur should immediately take. There was no space for Madhur to express what he wanted to say; most of all what he was feeling. The solutions that Niranjan offered were not ones that Madhur could not have thought of himself. In fact, having known his team member closely, he was in a position to come up with more and better solutions.
Why do you think he went to Niranjan? Was it for a solution?
To my mind, he went to Niranjan more for support and human connection. Not being heard made him feel miserable and more under pressure. It did not make him feel understood or help him handle the situation to the best of his abilities
In my work, as a facilitator and coach, I have repeatedly had to be the bearer of bad news and inform, about the yawning gap between the self-image and actuality of individuals, leaders. There are several reasons for this gap between where we think our listening skills are and where they actually are:
- Perhaps, we do not really understand what good listening means. In the absence of such clarity, we consider our listening skills satisfactory or more than satisfactory.
- We may never have been truly listened to ourselves. Therefore, we remain unaware of the magic that ensues true deep listening.
- We are successful in many spheres of life and mistakenly view our success as generic, including our proficiency at all life skills. For example, having reached a certain leadership rung in the ladder, wouldn’t it logically follow that my listening skills are fairly developed? The answer is, no. It does not really follow. It may or may not be true. It actually may be the personal growth space, where a whole lot of potential yet to manifest as a leader is locked up. Once unlocked, it may produce exponential results for you! (‘Results’ refers to two things—business results as well as personal fulfillment, a kind of overall feeling of wellbeing).
Five elements of great listening
- It is authentic
Do not pretend to be listening deeply, when you’re really not interested—Please do yourself and the people around you this great service. If you are not keen to know what the other person has to say or are pressed for time or preoccupied with other things, gently communicate and get out of it, instead of feigning interest.
Deep listening takes place when you are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, and not when you prove you already know it or that you’re smarter. This is directly related to how you regard the other person. If you have respect the other person, no matter what their status or age, you will believe what they have to say is of value, and therefore, make a greater effort at listening.
- It is from a space of curiosity
Related to point number one, when you are listening deeply, you are curious. You are not listening with the intent of matching what you hear with what you already know. You are listening afresh. You are also listening for what may not be said—the sighs, the spaces, the tone, the expressions. You are in a dance with the other person—A beautiful, gentle dance, where the other person is as talented and has things to say which are important to her/him. If you want to know her/him better, you first have to tune into what she/he is trying to communicate.
- It is non-judgmental
We all have our own belief systems, values and views, which we are entitled to— as listeners, as much as the speakers, but the idea is to create space for both. When you are listening, you are receiving without agreeing or disagreeing to what the speaker has to say. In all probability, you are trying to understand their view point and not getting into the game of, ‘Oh how can you think like that’! Or ‘This makes no sense to me’!, and so on.
Listening is a part of a conversation. When you switch roles (the listener becomes the speaker, and the speaker becomes the listener), you express your own viewpoints. Maybe with two different viewpoints, more ideas and possibilities beyond these two can emerge!
- It is about being in the moment and being able to give undivided attention
Past, present and future hold our energies. Unless we attune ourselves, there are thoughts of the past and the future in our cognizance along with what is going on in the present. This dilutes our attention. This is as true for anything else as listening. Deep listening happens when you can be fully attentive to what is happening in the moment and give yourself to that process.
- It is not about you, directly!
We love to take the centrestage; be in the spotlight! It is hard to give up! When you are listening, you may feel that you are training the spotlight on someone else for a while, although that is not the reality.
Listening is a part of a larger process called conversation. So, of course in the larger sense it IS about you too but during the micro act of listening, you are acting as someone who receives or catches, almost like the radio antenna that catches the waves; not generating your own. We love the sound of our own voice, which makes it hard to share the spotlight.
Think about it. There is gratification in sharing the spotlight too. You have to experiment to experience!.
What makes listening so invaluable?
First, it is a manifestation of being received. It tells me, I matter to you. It tells me you’re willing to suspend your thoughts for a while, to pay attention to mine. It builds trust, that I can share parts of myself with you, without being judged, or worse, ridiculed. It tells me you have depth of being, because only when you are secure in your own skin can you hold the space for the other, without the need to come in with your own experience, advice or criticism. In not telling me what to ‘do’ you communicate that you trust my abilities to take care of things in my own way. When a person is trusted and feels valued, magic happens, literally.
Listening is a worthwhile skill/art/attitude to develop
The first step, as with most things, is awareness—literally, turning a fine ear to the nuances as they happen.
- How well am I listening?
- What seems to be the other person’s reaction to my listening?
- In fact, are there people from whom I can actively seek feedback on my listening?
- On the flipside, how well is the other person listening to me?
- How heard and understood do I feel?
- What are the feelings associated with each of these processes? What kind of listening makes me feel how!
- How is it for me with peers, leaders, subordinates, in various relationships at home? Do I make listening a priority in each of these spheres?
- Can I begin now? What shifts for the other person when I listen deeply?For me?
There are so many ways to pepper up this process. It is an interesting and exciting journey, if you just care to observe, and hold some or all of the questions mentioned above as you view it with different lenses and experiment, you will keep getting better at it.
The story will warm up; many tastes will appear. Just be with it and watch it unfold!
As Claude Debussy, the French composer, aptly said, “Music is the silence between the notes”. Let your speech be punctuated with pauses and long silences, as you listen.
(The author is an organisational development professional.)