• Ela Stilwell
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Stay Still and Listen

It can be challenging to listen and truly hear what is being said. When listening, our minds wander, we get distracted, and we aren’t listening anymore during that time.

Neurologically speaking, our brains can really only do one thing at a time, but we’re great at zoning in and out of multiple activities, also called switch-tasking.

Listening is hard work. Morgan Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist and the author of The Road Less Traveled, said that you couldn’t truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time. If that’s true, let’s talk about being in listening mode.

Our blog posts are a condensed version of our podcast! Listen to the episode linked above to hear Rod take you through this content.

Step 1. Stop what you're doing

Getting into “listening mode” requires a mental shift. It’s about allowing our brains to focus on what we’re about to hear. Listening demands focus, so if you try to listen while finishing up an email, you’re not really able to hear what is said.

Step 2. Focus on how you're listening

First, shift the purpose behind your listening.

Listen and reflect instead of listening to anticipate what the other person will say

Stephen R. Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, points out that most of us don’t listen to hear the other person. We instead listen to be able to reply. We’re already thinking of our answer while still attempting to listen to what the speaker is saying.

Instead, we’d be better served by focusing on what’s being said, taking a moment to pause and reflect, then responding.

Many of us here at Uni-Signal are highly extroverted, and we find there’s no time to pause! We’re uncomfortable with the dead air time while we reflect, so, thinking we’re saving everyone time, we reflect while the other person’s talking. This doesn’t ultimately save time. We’ll often need to ask that the details be repeated, or worse, run off thinking we understood the task because we weren’t listening and reflecting; we were listening and preparing our answer.

Second, shift the biased thinking pattern.

Since we often think we know what the other person will say, or more precisely, what we want to hear, our brains shift into our preferred thinking mode.

What this looks like in practice.

  • If you’re highly analytical, you may be listening for the numbers and tuning out the context and preamble.
  • If you’re action-oriented, you may want just to hear the plan. You may struggle to tune in at the right time and consequently miss things.
  • If you’re empathetic, you may be listening for the impact on people, so your feelings are on high alert.
  • If you’re a big picture thinker, you might tune out the details because they bore you.

We’ve sabotaged our listening ability because we’re listening for something we want to hear rather than letting the speaker say what they want to say. Listening is not a passive process; it’s a very active one.

Third, shift where your eyes focus.

It’s essential to look at the person speaking with you and maintain eye contact. Not staring, but genuinely taking in the facial expressions and body language.

This is where email exchanges and traditional phone calls fail us because we’re deprived of body language. In an exceedingly virtual world, we recommend asking a speaker to turn their camera on to see their facial expressions, which are part of the message.

Keep in mind that looking into another person’s eyes may be a sign of disrespect in some cultures or communities.

Rod shares a story of the value of eye contact in the podcast:

“I discovered the importance of eye contact when I lived in Canada’s High Arctic, and much of the communication with my new friends was done while bundled up against the cold and wind. With most of our faces covered, the eyes did a lot of the talking. In today’s mask-wearing COVID-19 world, we may all be facing the same communication challenge that I faced in the Arctic, fortunately, without the cold and the wind. So if you can, look at each other when listening.”

Step 3. Begin Hearing the message

Keep an open mind!

Listening without judging can be a challenge, but it can also bring a richness of communication that is rare. Avoid reacting until you’ve heard the person out. You may be surprised at what you hear and what you learn.

Note-taking is especially helpful in the project world as most conversations have some action item coming out of the dialogue, which is often forgotten if not noted down.

Rod finds that taking notes helps him keep track of what’s being said, allowing him to organize his thoughts.

Whether virtual or in-person, ask permission to take notes. People rarely say no, but a few things happen by asking permission:

  1. It slows down the conversation’s back and forth because I’ve got to write, and it allows us to stop and reflect before we answer.
  2. It gives us points to review when we summarize what we think we heard or a guideline for asking future questions.
  3. It allows us to track the things that we commit to in the meeting or the conversation.

Step 4. Ask more questions and don't automatically try to solve the problem

Listening without interrupting can be a challenge, especially for those of us who are impatient or want to solve the world’s problems.

This may look like asking if the person wants help before you jump in with a solution.

Saying something like, “would you like some suggestions for how to tackle that?” will pretty quickly alert you to their needs. If they don’t want your solutions, asking the question gives them an out without them having to tell you to back off.

Ultimately, being fully present and truly focusing on whomever you’re speaking with is a sign of extreme respect.

Stop what you were doing, look directly at the person if possible, and ask questions instead of giving solutions. We can do a lot more to listen effectively, but if you practice these three activities alone, you will get to see how quickly you can increase trust and build value into every relationship. Listening is hard work despite being a soft skill, but it pays big dividends if we do it properly.

Author: Ela Stilwell