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Listening Deeply

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash


In my last blog, I wrote about the four foundational skills of great leaders: paying attention, listening deeply, speaking truthfully, and acting compassionately.

Today, I’d like to dive deeper into why I think the practice of listening deeply is crucial for effective leadership. You’ve probably heard it a hundred times – listening skills are the key to great customer service, sales achievement, client success, and people management. It is supposed to make you more emotionally intelligent and better at your job. If you have attended any kind of soft skills training, you may have learned that in order to be a great listener, you must focus your attention solely on the speaker, fully take in what they are saying, not get caught up in your own agenda, and paraphrase and summarize in order to signal that you’re doing your job well. You’ve probably also been told to listen for tone of voice, changes in mood or energy, and for what’s not being said. Not that difficult in theory.

Yet – I see it every day and I’m far from excluding myself – it doesn’t come easy.

Why is it that even with best of intentions we don’t tend to listen that well?

Here’s what I have observed in my co-workers, clients, friends, and myself. Many of us feel constantly under time pressure. I work in Silicon Valley, where days often seem like a race against the clock. New meetings start every 30 minutes with no buffer in between. I have clients who have more than 15 meetings a day, every Monday through Friday. Very little time to get to your next room, answer urgent emails, grab food, or go to the bathroom. Which means these things happen in between meetings, which effectively shortens the time you have to actually meet and have a conversation. You could argue that this may be a great forcing mechanism to make every minute count and pay extra attention to really listen. However, what we often do instead is multitask – pay attention to what’s being said first, but then quickly steal a glance at our phone or laptop while the other person is talking, have a few bites from our boxed lunch, or feel irritated by signals from our body which may be high on adrenaline yet ready to collapse. Not a great foundation for listening. We all do it and it makes sense – in the absence of sufficient time, let’s pack in as much as we can. Yet how often do misunderstandings occur, relationships suffer, and projects deteriorate because we don’t have the level of depth in our conversations that we could have or need to have? If interactions are so short and fast that as listeners, we can’t take much in, and as speakers, we can’t be thoughtful about what we want to say and how to get it across, we often pay for it later. So – my suggestion is to try and take the kind of energy out of our interactions that feels overly hectic and rushed. And try to become really present and create a space where we focus on deep listening so that meaningful conversations can happen. Some people, with practice, get grounded by taking a few deep breaths to reset themselves to be better listeners. If that doesn’t resonate with you, how about starting by hacking your calendar and protect a few 30 minute slots for yourself – to take care of breaks, emails, calls, food. Or, it could be as simple as having your phone or laptop out of reach during important conversations. One of my clients who thought this was not feasible tried it for three meetings a day for one week and boom – he came back and told me it had made a big difference. He reported that he felt less scattered in general, also after working hours, more focused on his conversation partners, and was told by others that he had become easier to relate to. I applaud him for making the shift from “not feasible” to experimenting with something at the very edge of his comfort zone. This takes courage. And it’s also the space where new possibilities arise and breakthroughs happen.

What will you do to get more present and cultivate deep listening?

Many leadership experts claim that  time pressure as a reason for doing or not doing something is an excuse. If we really wanted to change behavior, we would prioritize the practices that enable transformation. While chronic time starvation is definitely playing a role, mostly we get in our own way when it becomes hard to really listen. Our brain is on constant overload, and our bodies are often flooded with stress hormones. Especially during moments when we get triggered, which often happens in high stakes conversations. Let’s face it – in business, nearly every meeting feels like the stakes are high. We want to be perceived as competent. Which constantly puts us under pressure to have the right answers. This makes listening to others difficult, especially to those who ask us tough questions or have opposing perspectives. Most of our mental space is then likely taken up by figuring out how to best respond rather than continuing to listen. If we feel the need to win, we’ll focus on how to do that and immediately start  strategizing in our head. Which doesn’t leave much room to stay present with our conversation partner.

So – if all of this is so difficult – what’s the benefit of listening?

My guess is on some level you already know. You’ve had moments where someone else was so engaging that listening to them was easy and enjoyable. You have also experienced what it feels like to really be listened to. It’s one of the biggest gifts we can give one another. It makes us feel great and has the potential to foster deeper connection. Listening is an incredible way of increasing oxytocin, the “love hormone” as it is widely known. Oxytocin is a miracle worker – it reduces blood pressure and anxiety, and promotes social interaction. It supports healing and growth. It turns us into nicer people. Being heard and accepted makes us feel acknowledged and like we belong. It meets a basic human need. Being fully present while listening to the other person produces a connection between the two of you. Getting someone else’s full attention and ignoring all distractions feels incredibly rewarding. Who wouldn’t want that?

If you’re not sure about oxytocin, or that being fully listened to helps release it, here’s another reason why listening is important. It diffuses conflict and therefore helps build deeper relationships.  In a world where many problems arise because we often feel misunderstood, alienated, or divided, improving our relationships is crucial, both for personal growth and large scale systems change. Listening deeply builds important bridges. If you can get curious about people’s rationales behind their thinking, chances are you learn something new that may change your perception. Try replacing judgment with curiosity and pay attention to what you’ll find. The person you thought was totally wrong five minutes ago may have the missing link to something you haven’t been able to figure out until now. So – instead of arguing, both of you are coming closer together. You end up making progress on a tough challenge. Sounds like a win / win to me.

What are some helpful suggestions to help us cultivate our ability to stay present and listen deeply?

As with almost everything in life, change starts with an intention. Before you go into a meeting, remind yourself of your desired outcome, and how you want to show up. If it’s more about curiosity and openness, and less about winning a potential argument, you are on a great path. Then you listen to learn, not to win. Try to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. How do they see the world? What would it be like to be them? What’s important to them? What are non-negotiables for them and why? What is something new or surprising you may discover? It does not mean you have to agree with their point of view. It does mean, however, to try not to judge them. It’s not easy, especially when emotions are high and values differ fundamentally.

Here is a profound listening exercise you can try. It works best in a triad. Pick one person and ask them to talk for five minutes about something that’s currently on their mind and that they feel strong emotions about. The other two people will serve as listeners and don’t interrupt. One will focus on listening for emotions, the other on listening for values. It’s not so much about remembering the content, but about what the speaker feels (anything from joy, excitement, or insecurity to sadness, grief, or anger – be open to the full spectrum), and what’s really important to them (for example loyalty, integrity, success, product or service excellence, connection, etc). The speaker will not necessarily explicitly name emotions or values, so the listeners are encouraged to do some detective work and pick up on speech patterns, body language, tone, or energy. After five minutes, both speakers briefly share what emotions and values they have picked up on respectively. The speaker ends by sharing what happened for him/her during this exercise. Then rotate roles and do two more rounds, with each new speaker picking their own topic. I can guarantee you that you will learn a lot about the power of deep listening.

To close, I’d like to quote the fabulous Jane Goodall: ‘Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.’ This is what great leaders do.

Here’s to all of us practicing deep listening. Let’s support one another in creating a world that has the potential to bring us all closer together. We need it.

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