The gift of being a great listener is a selfless act. It requires empathy, emotional intelligence, fortitude and focus. It is so much easier to zone out on your eighth zoom meeting of the day, continue to watch television when your mother calls or scroll through your phone on that webcast and wait for something to call your attention back. If I learned anything from working remotely over the last two years it’s that distraction control is job one for me. Whether it be my neurotic dog Baci staring at me with some unknown demand or a ding on my laptop or weather alert on my iWatch, it can take all my energy to stay focused on my client on my laptop screen.
Here are some ways to be a more effective listener:
Shut it down. When I get a call from my mom, or FaceTime call from my daughter, I shut everything down. I shut down the television, turn down the stove and close my laptop. If I am unable to because I’m in the middle of a client call, I shut down the notification. There was a time where I would have tried to multi-task and maybe mute the television and try to focus on the phone call or scroll through my phone while on a zoom call. It’s now become second nature to shut any potential distraction down. This auto pilot move improves my ability to focus on the person or group in front of me.
Uni-tasking. Multi-tasking is a fallacy. Unless it’s a mundane task like chewing gum and walking at the same time, multi-tasking is just skimming through tasks and is an enormous energy drain. As Chamorro-Premuzic wrote for Fast Company, “Distractions, stress, worries, and multitasking all interfere with high quality listening, as we all know from everyday experience. Contrary to popular belief, tasks that require active attention cannot be done simultaneously. Multitasking is a bit like intuition, sense of humor, or musical taste: just because we think we are good at it doesn’t mean we actually are.” I think of initial client coaching calls I have had. If my new client is calling me from their phone while making their breakfast or shopping at Lowe’s, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be a productive collaboration. Try to uni-task to be able to focus.
Cultivate Connection. I recently watched Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart on HBO and have subsequently received the book of the same title. One of the most impactful parts of that show is the last section when she models cultivating connection. Brene and Aiko Bethea do a role play where Brene is the manager and Aiko is the underling with a problem presentation. Brene plays the role of manager in several non-productive, harmful ways and then finally connects in the last role play. In the last role play, she was able build connection by empathizing with Aiko’s discomfort without taking over and telling what to do. She was able to “be with” Aiko and asked for ways she support Aiko with the situation. This was really powerful for me. I can feel the urge to take over and fix a problem whether it’s my daughter’s wedding plans, my client’s strategic plan or friend’s home sale. Effective listening requires one to offer support but not taking over to solve.
Self-control. This is by far the hardest hurdle for me on coaching calls. I can find myself interrupting my client when I should be trying to be present and let the client talk it through. It’s an exercise in presence and mindfulness. I might have a great idea, or applicable antidote to tell but that is interrupting the client doing their best thinking. I actively have to focus on making the space for the client to work things through. As Chamorro-Premuzic wrote, “This is why mindfulness is a consistent predictor of better listening. Waiting for the other person to finish, and even counting two or three seconds after they’ve gone quiet, is a simple exercise to keep your feelings and thoughts under control. Even if you feel you are right, or you don’t like what you are hearing, you will be much more likely to win the argument if you wait until the other person finishes unless you don’t want them to listen to you.” Practice self-control and be present.
Mirror, reframe or clarify. This is the last and most impactful step of effective listening. It’s basically letting the other person know that you heard what they said. You can mirror back what they said, “So you were mad because your boss didn’t listen to you.” Or you can reframe it, “So you were frustrated because you couldn’t get through to your boss.” Or clarify, “Does this happen often with your boss? With others?” In any of these examples, you are letting the other person know that you heard them. If you are brainstorming, you could summarize the other person’s point, “So you think it’s important we finish by September 15th and we need at least two engineers on this project.” Let the other person or group know that you heard them.
I am a much better coach and facilitator when I use these techniques. It’s not easy and I’m just a work in progress but it’s amazing what the results are if I am able to be an effective listener. I am able to create more connection and a space for discovery and insight. What techniques do you use to be an effective listener?