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The Power of Conscious Listening, Part I

(Originally published July 12, 2019)

There are things that we do as human beings that we don’t give much – or any – thought to while we’re doing them. In some cases that’s outstanding, like our heart beating or our digestion doing its thing.

Thinking, to a large extent, is happening without us THINKING about thinking. (In fact a lot of thinking is habituated – an automatic program that runs along merrily until we focus our conscious attention on it.) It’s amazing, really, how much we’re doing without having to think about it.

There’s something else we do, most of the time, that we don’t think about much – listen. And that’s great – much of the time. We don’t necessarily want or need to always be aware of the ways we listen, and the outcomes those kinds of listening each bring to our day. Listening takes energy and time, and both are often managed just fine with our automatic listening habits.

But there’s a significant fraction of listening that needs to be anything but automatic. It needs to be conscious, and that’s the focus of today’s blog post. We all know situations like this.

A colleague comes into our office and we’re distracted with last-minute crisis issues. We give them half an ear (isn’t that a great expression? Who has half an ear?) and suddenly they’re angry and shut down. Or maybe WE are the ones who need a listening ear, we try to find it and wind up with unwanted/less-than-useful advice.

This might not matter much if these lack-of-listening incidents were forgotten in short order. But they tend to accumulate, and we tend to treat people based on our experience. There are other problems. A lack of conscious listening leads to terrible misunderstandings, assumptions that are wrong, vital information bobbled or lost, time wasted on incorrect implementation – the list goes on.

So why are we not always the best listeners we can be? Let’s start with how busy EVERYONE is these days. We are all running at something just under the speed of light, and one of the first things that gets sacrificed at that speed is careful listening, at least by most of us. We tend to revert to what takes less time and energy – i.e., habitual listening styles.

Erik, practicing conscious listening and imitating Alexnander Graham Bell

Secondly, while almost any listening style has a time and place where it makes sense (or at least won’t wreak havoc on our lives) listening is very, very situation-specific, and the right approach makes an enormous difference in the outcomes of those situations. Right style, wrong time. Since we’re rarely taught to consider listening as a conscious activity (sometimes) we “just” listen, rather than seeing listening as a set of skills (just like thinking).

Finally, we tend to listen in different ways depending on our personal neurological make-up. Some of us are better detail listeners, some of us listen for the bottom-line more naturally, some of us are listening for ideas… To listen for kinds of information we don’t naturally attend to takes, well, more work and energy. More about this in a future blog post.

So what are the possible listening styles that can employ as we race through the day? Here’s a short list. Don’t get too caught up in the names – there are various ways to describe all of these.

Problem-solving – this is listening to resolve some issue and MOVE ON. It tends to seek the limits of the problem and solutions that are close at hand/already likely to work. It also tends to limit options/the range of possible solutions.

Filtered – this is listening FOR specific topics or issues, and otherwise isn’t much in the room. You probably recognize this kind of listening from many meetings you have to attend in the day…

Defensive – this is when we are already a little angry or feeling under attack, and so we listen for evidence that someone is on our case or out to get us. We’re listening for the thing or topics that we feel vulnerable about.

Shoot the Breeze – this is water-cooler conversation, casual listening that doesn’t really have an agenda, but which serves as social lubricant. Might be called surface listening.

Stage-hogging – This is when we listen for an opening to drive our own conversation. Not really listening at all, but simply looking for a chance to leap in and “take the stage”.

Insulated – this is when we AVOID listening for certain conversations. It isn’t like we don’t hear those topics (although sometimes can do this so effectively we don’t even remember that topic surfacing in the conversation).

Reflective Listening – this is the practice of summarizing what you’ve heard so both the speaker and you KNOW that you’ve heard what they’ve said. Most energy-intensive of all the styles, but also one of the most useful, especially if we’re at all tracking what kind of listening is needed when.

So, for example, if we’re doing insulated listening while our boss is giving us heat about late expense reports (and we’re insulating from tedious expense reports in our thinking) then we might have a problem. It might also create challenges if we start problem-solving with a colleague (or a spouse/significant other) when all they really wanted was to be HEARD.

In my next post I’m going to talk about how to get to more conscious listening without having to become a Zen Master or burning a lot of time you don’t have!

Food for Thought:

1) When was the last time you really wanted to be heard – and it didn’t happen?

2) How did that impact your day, your mood, your work, that relationship?

3) Who is the best listener you know (or are you the best listener you know?)


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