silent listening
August 15, 2020

Can you hear the Sounds of Silence with your listening?

By Paul Laughlin

Continuing our theme of helping leaders think & listen better, let’s turn our attention to listening.

In my book review for “More Time to Think” I outlined the power of the Thinking Environment principles in creating a space for better thinking. The most striking aspect of receiving that experience is the quality of attention you receive.

Silent non-interrupting listening can be a powerful force to free your mind. One man who knows that is business mentor William Buist. He is offering that experience to his clients and in this post reflects on what he has learnt. A useful complement to William’s previous posts on collaboration, planning & leadership.

Now let’s start listening to William…

The curse of no one listening to you

In so many ways, and so often in company discussions, I hear staff or customers, or suppliers comment that they’re not being listened to. The confusions and miscommunications that arise can lead to a series of mistakes.

Ultimately, “not listening” will always threaten the business relationship some way or another. In all the work that I have done with businesses, there is one consistent feature. Communications can be easily misunderstood.

That set me wondering about the difference between miscommunications and listening. Lack of mutual comprehension doesn’t, of itself imply a failure to listen. Comprehension is after all as much about context as it is about semantics. Finally, listening has a completely different feel for the speaker.

How can you tell if they are really listening?

How do we know when we are truly being listened to? At many networking events, I end up talking to somebody I haven’t previously met. If for whatever reason, they don’t find sufficient engagement from our conversation, we can tell immediately.

Perhaps I am boring them or perhaps I didn’t meet the internal model of the type of person they sought to meet that day. Perhaps I work in a different market which is not of interest to them, or, perhaps they have a personal issue which I know nothing about. Whatever the cause, the distractions are obvious to us very quickly. We know we are not really being listened to.

5 tell-tale signs they are really listening

What is it about the quality of the conversation that leaves me with that feeling? I think there are five key things that stand out.

(1) Attention

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, attention. Paying attention doesn’t mean making permanent eye contact it’s more about the quality of their demeanour. Their manner, as I speak, speaks volumes. If their attention is not fully on the conversation that we’re having then where is it? Are they scanning the room behind me for their next “victim”?

(2) No interruptions

Secondly, interruptions. That’s s not just speaking over somebody, which closes them down. Sometimes, just ramming the reply up against the closing full stop can be enough to upset the flow for the speaker. Real listeners pause. They take time to consider whether the pause is really an invitation to speak. Sometimes a pause is because the speaker is still thinking. Great listeners allow time for that pause to hang pregnant before interjecting.

What infuriates us when listening to political interviews are interruptions and over speaking. If the interviewee is so desperate to portray their own agenda, they fail to listen to the question nor absorb its nuance. So they respond with their agenda and their agenda alone.

Yet, I think of the opposite. When we have been given attention by someone truly listening without interruptions, who has responded only when invited, and with curiosity then we feel, and I use this word with care, loved. It’s possible for someone to have spoken at great length. The quality of attention ensures none of it is lost.

None of it is forgotten even with no notes and without the need to respond to every aspect of what has been said, the focus moves to the shared areas of interest and curiosity. We will explore details just those areas where we need more information. We will question, seek additional insight, use a clarity of questioning and demonstrate in tangible form the depth of the attention we have just given.

(3) Permission

Thirdly, agreeing the manner of the conversations. The very best listeners will have sought permission to respond in the conversation. They may say at the start something like “I’d like to hear what you have to say. When you are finished. invite me to speak”. Then they listen in silence themselves.

(4) Curiosity

Next we find curiosity. If you have listened well, then there will be areas that need more clarity or further exploration. When the listener does speak the conversation isn’t about a counterpoint, its about greater understanding, and clarity. Counterpoints come by invitation.

(5) No summarising

To the fifth and final aspect of great listening. We will not summarise for the speaker. Great listeners ask the person to whom they have been listening to summarise the conversation.

They do this for one simple reason. If we, as the listener, summarise we are by implication saying that our view of what has been said is more important than the speakers. Yet, we cannot have their context in full. We do not have their insights and knowledge and experience, we cannot. We would be summarising in our context and with our knowledge and with our experience.

The mind that created the thinking is the one best placed to summarise it. They know the right context, the right emphasis and have the right motivation. The listener created that environment through their curiosity and from giving space for that wonderful thinking.

If we let the thinker summarise, (and appreciate its beauty) then we honour the thinking, but if we summarise it instead, we merely steal it.

How could you be listening better?

Many thanks to William. I believe it was well worth all leaders hearing that call for more effective listening.

Personally, I am mainly working on not interrupting others. Giving them more space to think, with my full attention. I am also slowly managing to add in other aspects of Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, including Ease & Appreciation.

What about you? How well do you listen already? How would you like to improve the quality of listening that you offer others? I’d really like to hear from you on this, so we can all listen to what you have to say.

In his classic book born out of his experience in Auschwitz, Victor Frankl recommends starting each day asking “Who needs me?” Perhaps we could build on that and ask ourselves: “Who needs me to really listen to them today?” Thanks for the challenge, William and I for one will try.