Before Active Listening

You Say It Best When You Say Nothing at All

Sometimes, it’s tempting to make matters…complicated. OK, a lot of the time. That just seems to be human nature.

Especially in times of stress, we humans seem to look for increasingly elaborate ways to deal with our issues and problems. We construct ever more complex models and interventions, tacking on one more bit to the widget, fiddling with the input/output calibration, micronizing the McGuffins, and so on. (In case you hadn’t guessed by now, I am not a qualified engineer; your problem-solving complications may vary.)

But helping somebody else solve a problem is one of those times when it pays to strip away all of the unnecessary distractions and detritus. It’s a situation that screams for a back-to-basics approach.

When somebody else owns a problem, listening is the prescription. But not just any kind of listening. In most cases, Active Listening is the advanced listening skill that will be the key to drawing out that person’s ability to encode his or her feelings into words, identify the root of the problem, and come up with actionable solutions. Because people experiencing problems are generally privy to more information about those issues, they’re typically the ones in the best position to solve them; leaders, on the other hand, are in the best position to help facilitate that autonomous problem-solving process, which builds healthy independence, initiative, and self-esteem in their teams.

But before a follower can start solving his or her own problems, a leader, will have to do a lot of listening. And simple, basic listening itself is not easy. It’s hard.

Basic Listening Skills: The Prerequisites to Active Listening

Anybody who’s gone through Leader Effectiveness Training knows that listening—full, attentive, intense listening, without leaping immediately to thoughts like, “what am I going to say in response? How should I answer? What comes next?”—can be one of the most difficult prerequisites for hard-driving Type-A leaders to master. listening skills

The Basic Listening Skills are building blocks to Active Listening, and they can be practiced anywhere—at home, in line at the store, at a social event or place of worship, out at lunch with colleagues, with friends after work, at the gym. The more you practice, the more comfortable they’ll become, and the more natural they’ll feel as you use them together in your practice of Active Listening.

  • Attending: The act of being with another person is more than sharing physical proximity, as anybody who has spent “quality time” with a dining companion tapping away at his or her endlessly buzzing cell phone will readily attest. The first prerequisite to listening, then, is paying attention to the other person in visible ways, through body language that is open, non-threatening and inviting. Face or make brief physical contact if that is appropriate and welcome; make eye contact at the same horizontal level (but don’t stare him or her down, which can be intimidating). In office settings, “management by walking around” and keeping an open door with a desk facing outward, toward the door, sends the message “I’m here for you,” rather than a closed door and a back to the door, which says “Go away—I don’t have time for you.”
  • Silence: Even when you don’t say a word, you are creating the space for somebody to say more. Pauses in conversations tend to be uncomfortable; many people rush to fill them. Resist this urge and see what happens the next time there’s a “pregnant pause” in a discussion with a troubled direct report and see whether the simple prompt of silence encourages him or her to continue speaking. Especially as precedent is set and trust is established, you will grow more comfortable gauging the length and utility of silence. Waiting through a few seconds of uncomfortable quiet may not seem like a “skill,” but it absolutely is.
  • Door Openers: So silence has gone on a bit too long. (How long? The ticking of the clock is getting loud. Too loud.) Or maybe you’re attending to somebody who’s slouching in his cube, clutching at his hair, and clearly showing signs of distress. It’s time for a door opener—an invitation to the person to go ahead and open up. “Say more about that…I am here for you.” “Seems like you’re worried—want to talk about it?” Or, “I’d be interested to hear about what’s on your mind.” “I’m here for you if you want to talk.” “Can I be of any help?” “Sometimes it’s helpful to get things off your chest. Want to?” Any well intentioned invitation to unload is useful as a door opener.
  • Acknowledging responses: The last basic listening skill to develop is an appropriate use of acknowledging. And for in-person use, it’s probably most helpful to think of how you speak with people on phones (if you remember how people used to speak on phones before the phone became a device primarily used to send and receive text messages). They’re short, sweet, to the point, and demonstrate you’re following along. Accompanied by head nods or shakes, they’re simple and direct. “Mmm-hmmm.” “I see.” “Yeah.” “Uh-huh.” “Oh.” “Really?” “Wow.” “Ooof.” “Ow.” Acknowledging responses aren’t going to win Pulitzers, either for length or for content. But they assure the person you’ve invited into dialogue that you’re with them for the duration.

So, to recap, basic listening isn’t accidental or passive; it isn’t simply hearing what somebody else has to say. It’s an act of intentional and active engagement with another person, and it’s based on a distinct set of skills (which, like all skills, are initially conscious, then as we grow in proficiency, eventually become unconscious). When we use these basic listening skills on a regular basis, we’re staying limber and in practice for those times when we inevitably need to haul out our superpower–the almighty skill of Active Listening.

Think you’ve got the basics down? Practicing every day? Ready for more advanced skills? Check out the next L.E.T. Workshop in your area.


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