In parts one, two and three in this series, I shared the opportunities, benefits and barriers that deep listening can present for leaders. In this fourth and final instalment, I’d like to share some practical techniques you can use to engage in deep listening.
Be present and focused
This is perhaps one of the hardest things for modern leaders to do. Our lives are filled with so many attention-grabbing stimuli, while our internal thoughts are distracted by worries about the future and the past.
To be fully present and focused on another person is demanding, but essential if you are to avoid sending unhelpful signals to the other person. When they perceive that your own thoughts and needs are more important to you than theirs, as evidenced by your lack of focused attention on them, they experience you as disconnected, or even cold or hostile. Taking the time before key conversations to centre yourself and bring your attention into the present moment can help.
Deep breathing is a useful tool. So too is mindfulness training, which can also help you more quickly recognise those moments where your mind has wandered from what the other person is saying and provide tools to allow yourself to bring your attention back to the present moment.
Finally, an internal affirmation that ‘In this moment, with this person, I am precisely where I need to be’ can help alleviate anxiety and stressful thoughts that you need to hurry up and move on to the next thing.
Maintain eye contact
Eye contact is perhaps the most useful active listening technique. Your brain focuses on what it’s looking at. By paying attention to the other person’s face, you can maintain greater attention to what they are saying.
Pause and use silence
Instead of immediately responding when the other person finishes talking, take a moment to quietly reflect on what they have said. Pausing and being silent for just a few seconds gives you time to process what has been said and reach a deeper level of understanding. If you are worried that the other person may misinterpret your silence as disengagement, let them know what you are doing with a comment like, ‘That’s interesting. Let me think about that for a moment.’
From personal experience, I have only ever perceived the other person’s appreciation for my attempts at deep listening when I have used this technique. It has also led to many insights that I am sure I would have otherwise missed.
Note-taking forces you to pay attention to what is being said. The most important meetings we have in our lives involve notes being taken – such as with lawyers and doctors – so doing so sends a clear signal to the other person that what is being said matters to you. Unless you have perfect retention and have a perfect memory, note-taking also helps recall and reflection during and after key conversations, aiding the quality of your analysis and decision-making.
I take notes in all my meetings and usually declare upfront that I am planning to do so because what the other person has to say really matters to me and I want to capture it accurately. I let them know where appropriate that my notes are for my use only and check that they are confirmable with this. Rarely does anyone have a concern. Indeed, I find many moments where the other person is really pleased when I can accurately play back exactly what they said sometime later. This shows that I was really listening and clearly understand what their point of view is.
Of course, hearing what has been said and being able to play it back accurately is only a signal that you have been listening, not necessarily one that suggests you have understood what has been said. Try to ‘playback’ what the other person has said using your own words and not theirs. This is a terrific test of whether you truly get what they are saying. You don’t have to agree with what they are saying, just show that you understand it. Starting with phrases such as, ‘So what you are saying is ...’ or, ‘Let me get this right. Your view is that ...’ can help.
A very successful business leader I know required his leadership group to run what he called ‘listening sessions’ – every month. These listening sessions involved leaders spending time with groups of frontline employees from a business division different from their own and asking questions for one hour about what the employees were seeing, what was and wasn’t working, and what help they needed from management. Each leader was only allowed to ask questions for that whole hour. They weren’t allowed to answer, respond, argue or defend. The big boss was very clear about it: ‘They are listening sessions, not answering sessions.’
Each leader then had to bring the feedback into the next management team meeting and share it candidly. The process was extremely helpful to the top team in truly understanding what was going on in the business and allowed them to perceive opportunities and challenges that they otherwise would never have seen. They also received candid feedback on the on-the-ground impacts of their strategic decisions, for better or worse. Had the leaders allowed themselves to respond, justify, or argue in the sessions, the employees would not have shared a lot of the harder-to-hear but oh-so-important feedback. Simply listening is sometimes all that is needed.
Ask, ‘If that were true, what would it mean?’
This is an especially helpful technique when you hear the other person saying something that is very different from your point of view, and you feel triggered into quickly responding with “let me tell you…”. When this happens, we usually want to quickly tell the other person that they are wrong – and let loose with all the reasons why they are wrong. This is hardly helpful for signalling warmth and openness. This reaction also means that you run the risk of ignoring a version of things that may have elements you can learn from, or something that expands your knowledge beyond your current assumptions and beliefs.
To remain in a curious and open state, see if you can suspend your judgement and the need to assert your version of the truth a bit longer by saying something like, ‘That’s very interesting. It’s quite different from what I had been thinking. If what you are saying were true, what would that mean for our situation/our problem/our choices going forward?’ If you try this, one of two things will happen as a consequence:
You might listen to their response, decide that their version is still quite different from your point of view and let them know you disagree – but at least they will feel you gave them a very fair hearing.
The other possibility is what they say shifts your view and expands your thinking in some helpful way. Either way, you will benefit from hanging out with their view just that bit longer.
I hope that these techniques are helpful to you as you engage in deep listening with others. I have no doubt that if you keep at it, they can lead to increased connection, trust, engagement and insight – essential elements in the exercise of leadership.
For more on this topic or other essential leadership issues please visit our website, read my other blog articles, listen to my podcast or read my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership