Sometimes when people are speaking, this is what we hear.
A few years ago, I started to work with leaders to develop their ability to communicate better to drive engagement and results for their teams. When these leaders would show up in my classroom, often times, they bring with them their struggles and challenges to get their message across. “They just don’t listen”, exclaimed one exasperated leader after the other. It seems like they faced an impossible challenge every time – whether it was getting their direct reports to show up to work on time, or whether it was convincing their boss to adopt a new strategy. Several mentioned the difficulty of having to deliver tough feedback. “I don’t know what to say,” one manager said to me, “so I just don’t say anything at all.”
The misconception in communication is just this – that to be a good communicator, you need to be able to speak well. To most of us, it’s simple to imagine that getting our message across involves some sort of magical persuasion or influencing tactic. We have to be inspiring, to use the right words and grammatical structure, we have to elevate our tone, our posture, our gestures. In fact, there are so many “tricks and tips” all over the internet on how to say anything to anyone. From using “we” language to asking the right questions there are endless examples of how we can “say” the right thing to finally get our message across to the other person.
In exploring how to help these leaders develop their communication skills, I stumbled upon a new concept – listening to understand. It was a huge light bulb moment for me. I tend to think quickly on my feet and react immediately to conversations, that is, I have a tendency to listen to respond. In fact, I typically don’t even wait for the person to finish speaking before I formulate my thoughts on what to say next. What happens for me is this: as the other person talks, the wheels in my brain continue to spin, just waiting for the right moment, the moment where the other person takes pauses for one breath, and then I swoop in to say my piece, whether it was warranted or not.
Listening to understand is all about being generous with your attention. It is about truly focusing 100% of your attention on what the other person is saying. It’s taking the time to learn about the other person’s perspective. When you listen to respond, you can miss important details, facts, and cues. When you listen to understand, you zone in, rather than zone out on what is said, giving you the advantage of truly hearing what the other person is saying, so that what you hear, is what you understand.
Yet having a conversation, especially a difficult one isn’t a one sided process. In fact, conversations are two-sided, they are didactic and dynamic. While listening to understand is a critical skill to great communication, I would argue that listening to connect is even more important. Listening to connect builds trust, and trust breaks down conversational barriers. According to Judith E. Glaser, author of best-selling book, Conversational Intelligence, in order to build trust and get extraordinary results, leaders need to listen to connect, not judge or reject. This involves taking listening one step further. Instead of trying to understand what the person is saying, try to relate to it. See the way they see, feel the way they feel. Observe the little nuances of what is said vs. unsaid, what lies beneath the surface or between the lines. Be intentional about looking for opportunities to understand and relate to the other’s perspective. Focus on being non-judgmental, and open up the conversational space for creating greater connections, sharing perspectives and discovery.
When we choose to listen to connect, we become better communicators. In the end, it’s not about word choices or persuasion. It’s about making a connection, caring for and bonding with another human being.