I don’t want to write this article. I believe there is no way to provide advice about listening without sounding like a touchy-feely douchebag. But I’m going to write this article because there is a good chance that your definition of listening is incomplete, and what I consider to be obvious and simple ways to listen are not obvious at all.
The problem starts with the word: listen. Of course you know how to listen. You sit there and let the words into your head. Perhaps your definition is more refined. Maybe your definition of listening involves hearing because you’re aware of that switch in your head that you must flip to really hear what a person is saying. It’s work, right? Pulling in all the words, sorting them in your head, and mapping them against the person who is speaking. That is listening, that is hearing, but if that’s all you’re doing and you’re a leader of people, then you’re still only halfway there.
Let’s start with the most basic rule of listening: If they don’t trust you, they aren’t going to say shit.
A Listening Structure
First, context. The type of listening I’m going to describe is not the listening you’re going to use all the time. This is the aggressive listening I employ with co-workers and friends, but once you understand the different parts of this seemingly laborious listening protocol, you’ll start using them elsewhere. Another thing: there’s armchair psychology going on below. I’m going to say “I feel” a lot and your inner systems nerd may rage, but my experience, after years of listening to all types of people, is that these are useful moves.
Second, it would be easy to flip this article and make it a piece about healthy and useful conversations. Some of my advice has to do with building these conversations, but my belief is that a good conversation starts with the ability to listen. A good conversation is a bunch of words elegantly connected with listening.
Open with innocuous preamble. In most discussions or 1:1s, you have an agenda. There is a question that you really want to ask. Don’t start with this question. In fact, start with something small and innocuous. Crap openers like, “How are you?” or “What’s up?” are actually better than blindsiding someone with, “Hey, I hear Oliver lost his shit in the design review. Weren’t you running that? What happened there?”
Your preamble defines a quiet, safe place where you and your whomever can transition from wherever you were before you sat down together to this new, calm place where intelligent and reasonable conversation occurs. Your preamble states your intent: “Outside of this door it is professionally noisy. Inside of this room, we are going to talk and listen.”
Look them straight in the eye and don’t look at the clock. Once you’re past your opener, it becomes a real challenge. See, Oliver losing his shit is actually a really big deal with lots of implications, and that’s one of three disasters in progress today. Your preamble set the stage, but with all the disasters in progress, you need to focus.
It’s simple, it’s trivial, but attention is defined by eye contact. Think about the last time you sat in the audience in a huge presentation. Remember when the presenter walked to your side of the room and looked you straight in the eye? WHAM She’s… looking at me. What I am going to do? For reasons I do not understand but completely feel, we are more mentally engaged when we’re staring at each other’s eyes. Eye contact is the easiest way to demonstrate your full attention and it’s also the easiest way to destroy it.
23 minutes into your 1:1, you remember an essential part of one of the other disasters going on today and you glance at the clock… and they notice. Listening is built on an evolving attention contract that initially reads: “He is really busy and has no time for me”. Each time that you successfully sit down and give someone else your full attention, the attention contract gradually evolves. After a time, it reads: “He and I meet each week and we honestly talk about what matters”.
A single glance at your clock is not going to void the attention contract, but early on in a relationship it can certainly set the tone.
Be a curious fool. This is a restatement of advice I gave in the 1:1 article: “Assume they have something to teach you”. As a lead, manager, or director, early on in establishing the attention contract, they’re going to be nervous. They’re going to assume that you’ll be talking and not listening and the exact opposite is what you’re looking to negotiate.
It’s a game. Keep asking stupid questions based on whatever topics arrive until you find an answer where they light up. She sat straight up when we started talking automation. The first time he didn’t seem nervous was when he talked about traveling. Being a curious fool means talking about things that appear to have no substantive value to the conversation or the business – that’s ok. Over time, your foolishness will allow you to build connective tissue, to further develop your mental profile of this person. When you understand what they really care about, you’ll be better equipped to have bigger conversations, and that is where trust is built.
Validate ambiguity, map their words to yours, and build gentle segues. There will be bumps while you listen. There will be strange sentences and awkward pauses, statements that make no sense, and unanswerable questions. And your job during all of this confusion is to maintain the conversational flow.
In my head, a good conversation has a steady, healthy tempo. This. Is How. We Speak. Listen. And Learn. When a bump in the conversation arrives, I ask myself: do I need to understand what just happened or is it in our interest to move along? If further understanding is the move, I repeat their last sentence, “What I hear you saying is…” and then I repeat my version of their thought.
It feels redundant, repeating what was just said. It feels inefficient because the words were just out there, but trust me when I say that a decent amount of your professional misery is based on the simple act of one person misinterpreting the intent of another and misinterpretation avoidance isn’t even the goal of this move. The goal is to make it clear to the other person: “I know you just said something complicated and I am directing my full attention at understanding what you said and what it means”.
There are two possible reactions to this restatement: the nod or the stare. The nod means, “You heard me correctly and let’s move along”. The stare means, “I don’t know what you just said”. I counter the stare with another restatement, except this time I use more of the words and language that were in the original idea – I make it sound like they said it, but it’s me talking.
The last tempo maintenance move I have is the segue. Similar to your preamble, part of your job is to discover how to move from one topic to the next. The validation and repetition moves I suggest above are one way to pull this off, but a segue can be even simpler. It can be, “Ok, next thought?” or “And then what happened?” A conversation without clarification and segues is an exhausting circular exercise where two people are working increasingly hard at not understanding what the other is saying and failing to get to the point.
Pause. Like, shut up. There will be times when you’re listening and it’s clear they want to say something else. They’re dying to say it, but you cannot find the question, the segue, or the words to pull it out of them. In what is one of the more advanced listening moves, my advice is: shut up.
Yes, I just told you to gently guide a conversation by listening and finding segues from one thought to the next, but that’s not working. It’s time to be quiet for as long as it takes. When I’m pulling this move, I sit there maintaining eye contact and repeating to myself: I will not be the next person to speak. I will not be the next person to speak. It’s maddening… for both of you, but that’s the point. The conversation is not headed where it needs to go, so you’re going to disrupt with silence.
You are not in their head. No matter how empathic or smart you believe yourself to be, the story they’re telling themselves is vastly different than the story you’re telling yourself. In these awkward silences, I find people volunteer the part of the story they really want to tell.
If They Don’t Trust You, They Aren’t Going to Say Shit
Everything I just described can be faked. Anyone who has been pressured into buying something they did not need has been on the receiving end of faked listening skills, but there’s a reason why, when you leave the car dealership, that you feel used. You slowly become aware that you were manipulated with a false sense of familiarity and connection. You realize that while they showed interest in you, they didn’t really listen. They have no clue who you are. It was an empty conversation facilitated by manipulation cloaked as listening skills.
Listening is work, and the difference between listening well and making them feel like you’re selling them a car has to do with intent. Each time I sit down to listen, my goal is the same: continue to build trust with the people I depend upon and who, in turn, depend upon me. It takes months of listening, but I want a professional relationship where my team willingly tells me the smallest concern or their craziest idea. Think of healthy listening as preventative relationship maintenance.
The longer you’re a bad listener, the smaller your world gets and the narrower your mind becomes, because you’re not exposing yourself to different ideas and perspective. The better you become at listening, the more of the world you’ll see, and the world knows a lot more than you.