How well do you really listen?

Scary looking school teacher with wooden stick

Listening is one of those skills that you might think is easy. In reality, creating a high fidelity connection is difficult in a one-on-one conversation and darned near impossible in the ruckus of a team meeting.

These continual poor connections have drastic consequences.  Without effective listening your team is probably mired in conflict and revisiting the same issues over and over without resolution.  That’s because you’re being distracted by superficial, logical stuff that masks the important, emotional stuff going on. If you want to get to the root of the issue so you can solve it once and for all, try improving your listening skills.

Liane’s Back to Basics Listening Drill.

When I see (or hear) a team that is doing a poor job of listening, I get old school and implement the following process.

  1. No one talks until there has been a sliver of silence after the previous speaker. If initial attempts at self-regulation fail, I use an object (e.g., a marker) and allow only the person with the marker to speak. The physical act of transferring the marker gives the perfect amount of time for brains to process the person’s comments.
  2. I remind the team to process all of what each person is communicating.  What are the facts; what are the perceptions or judgments dressed as facts; what are the feelings; what are the underlying beliefs the speaker is exposing through their comments? I encourage people to jot down notes to help them process all the information.
  3. Before adding a new comment, each person must paraphrase what they heard and what they read into what they heard. “John, you said that the process is moving too slowly and I sense that you’re frustrated that we are being so formal.  Is that right? I’m feeling differently. I feel more confident knowing we’re using a better process than normal.”
  4. If the person gets the paraphrase wrong (which is 95% of the time at the beginning of the drill), the first speaker gets to reiterate their points and we repeat until the paraphraser’s version is approved by the initial speaker.  This is a fantastic reality check on how terrible people’s listening actually is.
  5. I require the team to test their hypotheses with phrases such as “I get the sense that…” or with questions such as “how is that landing for you?”
  6. I teach them to redirect the conversation to the real heart of the matter. “We’ve been talking about changing our budgeting process, but what I’m hearing is that this is really about fairness and whether one team has easier targets than the other. What is contributing to the sense that the targets aren’t fair?”

I am pretty tired of people who expect to be heard without offering others the courtesy of being listened to.  When it becomes obvious to me that this what’s going on, I channel a 19th century school marm and go right back to basics.    Maybe it’s time for your team to try the drill.

About the Author

Liane Davey combines her expertise in strategy with her deep insight into group dynamics to create powerful changes in top teams. As a Vice President of Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions and the Lead Team Effectiveness, she is sought out by executives at some of North America’s leading financial services, consumer goods, high tech, and healthcare organizations. She works to rehabilitate teams that have become toxic and with healthy teams that want to take their performance to the next level.


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