I misspoke yesterday and it illustrated a very important point. I was teaching a class on communication skills, particularly the skill of listening. Listening is definitely not a skill we are trained in. And true listening is a practice few of us engage in.
I was talking about the myriad of reasons why listening is so important. I said, listening helps you to understand. And I mean to really understand. So often, we believe we understand what another person is saying, but we don’t. In business, the benefit to understanding is obvious.
I noted the Stephen Covey habit to “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Listening and speaking are both important. But listening must come first. People will not listen if they do not feel heard. This may explain so many of the miscommunications that occur if everybody just wants to be heard and nobody really is listening.
I told them that listening deeply and purposefully builds trust and rapport, which are invaluable in business relationships, and time-savers in the end.
Then I said, “Listening defuses conflict. What happens when you are in conflict and both people are trying to prove their point? One person says ‘It’s red.’ The other says, ‘It’s blue.’ The first person says, ‘It’s red.’ The second, ‘Blue.’ And so on because neither of them is listening to the other person’s point. To stop that kind of communication, just one of them needs to say, ‘Oh; you think it’s blue. Why do you think it’s blue?’ and become very curious about understanding that point of view.”
I said (and this is where I did not paint an accurate picture), “People will repeat themselves until you hear them. Once you hear them, they will stop repeating themselves.” Several people said, “No; that’s not true. Some people will repeat themselves over and over because they don’t like the answer you are giving them even if you really are listening.” True. Here is the important distinction: People will repeat themselves until they feel heard. You may believe you are listening. You may in fact BE listening. But the real goal is to have the other person know you are listening. I teach specific listening tools that will help you hear and understand, but the tools are not the most important thing. Equally as important as really listening, is listening in a way that makes other people feel heard.
What makes people not feel heard? Often it is because they have strong emotions about something and they don’t feel you are really getting how they feel about the situation.
For example, your employee may call you very upset about a transaction with a client. You may listen and ask curious questions, and you may employ the reflective listening tool and paraphrase and repeat back what they have said. But they may not feel heard and may continue to repeat themselves. This is because even though you are listening and you do hear what happened to her, you are not acknowledging the frustration and the strong emotions that she has. When people do not believe that you hear them on that level (the level of “you seem upset, tired, frustrated, annoyed…”) no matter how well you listen, they may not feel heard.
Next time someone repeats themselves over and over to you, ask yourself what they are feeling, what is really important to them? Then say that – “You seem upset about this.” “It sounds like this was really important to you.” “You are mad because we are not giving you what you want.” When you get how people feel and why they are upset and you let them know you get it, they will begin to listen to you more. Try it.