Listen Like Your Life Depends on It
Virtually everybody thinks they listen better than they actually do. Perhaps it’s because the act of listening appears to be passive. I mean, who among us hasn’t feigned paying attention in conversations, classes, or meetings? Just make eye contact, nod a bit, and half-smile at the speaker a few times, and you’ll fool ’em every time. (42)
Try your best to not fake listen. Obviously.
Of course, good listening can be exhausting at times, since our brains process information far faster than people typically speak. That leaves us with extra bandwidth, within which we constantly battle little mental interruptions (What time does the dry cleaners close? I can’t forget to buy dog food tonight! etc.). It’s hard to stay 100% focused. But the rewards of mindful, consciously competent listening are incalculable and can be transformative.
Let’s break this down.
Like all good things in life, good listening requires staying in the moment. It’s not easy, so we have to be proactive about it. Our brains process so much faster than a speaker’s rate of words that there is lots of unused bandwidth in any listener’s mind, making them vulnerable to distraction. (43) You should not be surprised that the biggest distraction is rooted in the fact that we are all massively self-interested. That is:
“People don't listen to understand. They listen to reply.” —Stephen Covey
Sound familiar? There are lots of reasons we listen merely to reply: Nobody ever warned us not to; we want to appear prepared and smart; we’re hoping to “win the point”; we’ve heard this question and think the answer we’ve given dozens of times will satisfy our counterpart, etc. But listening to reply is a bad habit, albeit a habit that is embedded in most of us. We can’t listen deeply and process our reply at the same time, although it sure feels like we can.
A second common mistake listeners make is to answer too quickly. Instead, when faced with a question or statement your counter-party believes warrants your consideration, you should allow for a space, a silence, a pause between question and answer, between stimulus and response.
Throughout this book I’ve talked about the importance of pausing. When you take that moment before answering, you signal to the listener that their question is worthy of thought, of contemplation. You are valuing the question while subtly assuring the other person that they will receive a thoughtful, cogent answer. (44)
Silence can feel pretty awkward, especially in meetings. But if you can become comfortable with it, you will often find that the other person will fill the void, often with valuable information. Silence also demonstrates gravitas and signals that you have the confidence to not be rushed into an answer. Having the courage to stop and think speaks volumes about you, especially when you’re in a situation where you are among the youngest in a group. Other bad listening habits to avoid:
As my dad would say, “Button your lip and learn something.” You can’t learn anything
when you are talking, so as a general rule, strive for your total airtime to be one-third of
the meeting. (45)
Don’t interrupt. It’s rude.
If a client tells you a story about themselves, don’t jump in with one of your own. This was my Achilles heel for a long time. If a client told a story about Halloween with their kids, I felt almost bound to tell them mine. I thought I was building rapport! What I was actually doing was shifting the focus from them to me. And the worst part was that once the client stopped talking, I lost an opportunity to ask a question and maybe understand them better. Yes, it might make sense to share my story at some point, just not then.
Don’t have your phone visible or computer screen active. We know it’s impolite to play with
our phones when conversing, so we put them down and even turn them facedown to signal
our virtue. That’s not enough. In a study published in the researchers found that the mere
presence of a mobile phone on a table diminishes relationship quality compared to when the
phone is absent. Participants in the presence of a phone also perceived less empathy from their
partner and trusted them less. So turn the phone off and get it out of the client’s sight.
Remember to ask questions. Both reflective questions (which clarify what’s been said) and
probing questions (which deepen the conversation) are hallmarks of active listening.
The better the quality of the information you obtain from your client, the better you will understand not only what the other person is saying but also the motivation behind their words.
When you plan your meeting, be sure to jot down your questions, thinking about what you want to learn and the information you need to advance your ultimate objective. The point is to draft questions that will spark conversation, listen well to that conversation, and get closer to your goal.
There are three types of questions. Each has its place and purpose. The first is an open question, which is used to get your client to provide a broad answer, hopefully packed with useful information. An example: What is important to you? By definition, open questions should not be answerable with a yes or no.
The opposite is the closed question, which is used to extract specific information. Example: What are you willing to pay? Closed questions often yield short answers like yes or no and quickly put the ball back in your court. They also tend to be overused. Without a sense of where you are going, and logical follow-on questions, closed questions can weigh down a conversation and make it feel more like an interrogation.
The third type of question is the reflective question, which is a follow-on to check your understanding of what your client just said. An example of a decent, open reflective question: I’m not sure I’m clear on that last point. Can you give me a specific?
In my experience, reflective questions are underutilized because we’re not listening well. But when used well, they help you ask for more, probe, clarify, uncover, and reflect key ideas.
If all this seems like a lot to swallow in order to simply listen well, don’t fret. True listening gets easy quickly because the personal benefit for you is that once you start listening to understand, you’ll set off a beautiful upward spiral beginning with more authentic encounters, greater trust, and, ultimately, more meaningful and productive relationships both personally and professionally.
The reason you want to ask probing questions and listen carefully to the responses is to get as much information as you can and to understand what exactly your counter-party is trying to solve for. It’s important to distinguish between positions and the interests underlying those positions, as you can see in the chart below.
This is particularly important in negotiations. Sometimes your counter-party will reveal the underlying interest; other times, they may not offer up their true motives. Take the middle example above, on peace negotiations. At the Camp David peace talks in 1978, President Carter mediated a number of Arab – Israeli issues. One sticking point was the Egyptian demand that Israel return the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had taken during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Israel’s publicly stated position was that they would not relinquish the territory. But even though they had begun building settlements (at that point, roughly 4500 Israelis had moved to the Peninsula) and Israel’s only oil rigs were on Sinai, continuing to occupy the territory wasn’t really in Israel’s best interests, save for eliminating the possibility that Egyptian tanks, in a repeat of 1967, would be able to blitzkrieg through the area, putting Israeli defenses on their back foot.
All of which is to say that Israel’s public position to not relinquish was only one of several ways for them to achieve their interests, which was simply not to be put at a military disadvantage. Because peace with Israel was important to Egypt and other Arab states (though only Egypt and, to a lesser degree, Jordan, were willing to concede that publicly) there were lots of ways to achieve a win-win agreement. In the end, Egypt got the peninsula and oil fields back, and a combination of demilitarization and early warning technology satisfied Israel’s real interest—to keep its citizens safe from attack.
My point here is to emphasize the importance of asking good questions so you can focus on the real issues (interests) at hand and avoid a binary choice.
(42) Good listening is observable physically and verbally, but the physical signs and vocal cues tend to occur naturally when you’re in the moment. The physical manifestations of listening include nodding, jotting notes, and maintaining eye contact and good posture. Another sign that we are truly listening is that we will repeat or paraphrase key points, summarize, and ask questions. To do this, to fully attend to the speaker, you need to suspend your own frame of reference, suspend judgment of the other person or their ideas, and avoid other internal mental activities. Your only job is to listen well.
(43) No, it is not possible to multitask. As of this writing, a summary of research examining multitasking on the American Psychological Association’s website describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. These findings have demonstrated that when you shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which your brain must yank itself from the initial task and then glom onto the new task. This shift, though it feels instantaneous, takes time. In fact, up to 40 percent more time than single-tasking—especially for complex activities.
(44) Obviously, you don’t need a thinking pause before every answer. To show careful consideration of the question “Where were you born?” would be weird. I promise you’ll be able to tell which questions or comments really matter to your counter-party.
(45) One of the best major-gift fundraisers I’ve known, and certainly the bravest, is Angie Garvich. Angie once had a garrulous CEO who was talking too much during meetings with potential donors. One day she brought a stopwatch to an hour-long meeting. After the meeting ended with no progress made, she asked the CEO how long he thought he’d spoken. He replied, “Ten minutes.” She showed him the stopwatch: 47 minutes!