(Originally published July 23, 2019)
One of my best friends in the world has a wonderful Mom. She's warm, she's energetic, she likes to have family and friends around her table, and she'd give you the shirt off her back if she thought you needed it. A truly lovely person.
She's also one of the busiest people I know. One of the outcomes of her frenetic lifestyle is that she tends to answer the phone like this: "hey, Erik, what do you need?" Another outcome is that, as you begin to talk, she is clearly listening for the thing she needs to do for you, or the problem she's supposed to solve for you.
Which is outstanding - IF that's why you're calling. If, however, that's NOT why you're calling, well, she's just not on the same page. Her default position is problem-solving, and she is often solving problems where there are none, or, worse, she's not listening because she's so focused on problem-solving. There's been more than a little family tension, by all accounts, because of this mono-focus on problems and solutions.
We want to be a little - just a little - more aware of what kind of listening is needed when.
This means we need to be a little - just a little - more "in the room" when we are involved in a conversation (as opposed to running on automatic pilot, as we are sometimes wont to do.)
For example, lots of us, like my friend's Mom (and especially at work, although this is a problem on the home front as well) tend to default to problem-solving as a listening style. Makes a lot of sense. Work is largely about problem-solving, yes?
But problem-solving, as I said in my last post, is only one of the possible listening styles, and sometimes it is exactly the WRONG listening style for the situation we're in.
So how can we get into trouble by being in problem-solving mode as listeners? Let me count the ways:
Sometimes we're just looking for a listening ear. This is more often the case than you might suppose.
Sometimes we're just seeking clarification/amplification.
Sometimes we're not sure what we're looking for, and we're working to think something through.
Sometimes we're anxious, stressed or worried, and we're seeking reassurance that we're on the right track (or course correction if we're not)
Sometimes we want to solve the problem on our own. How else can we learn to solve problems?
OK, great, you might say. Bit I don't have TIME to sit and "just listen" to someone - I've got stuff to do! Well, sure - except you had the time to fix it for them. So maybe, allocating no more time than you would to solve the problem for them, you could listen effectively instead?
Of course most of us don't have tons of time to give away, regardless of who we're talking to or what they need. But one of the interesting things about conscious listening is how little time real listening can take. Problem-solving takes time too, yes? Often, to take my first bullet point above, being a listening ear can take a whole minute or two, max, especially if you're practicing reflective listening (more about that in my next blog post).
(And, if you're dealing with one of those co-workers who tends to go on, we can gently remind them that we have a couple of minutes to listen, then we have to go back to work...)
Or, for bullet point #2, clarification can take moments of your time - IF we're in the room enough to hear what someone needs. In the case of someone being anxious or stressed it might mean that they're not looking for answers so much as they are looking for a sense of encouragement/personal competence to take on what's in front of them.
This has huge implications for managers, of course, but it applies to everyone at work. Sometimes the best thing an employee can do for his or her boss is just listen, first, THEN make a better, more informed decision about what response is called for in the conversation. And this doesn't touch customer service, sales, cross-department communication, difficult conversations - there are a lot of places we can be better listeners.
Bottom-line: we could all stand a little more being present for the listening needs of the moment, regardless of our default styles of listening. One useful way to do this is to simply practice, just for a moment, turning our attention fully to the speaker. It doesn't take us more than a moment to assess what's needed, IF we're in the room for the conversation in the first place.
Another thing to do is orient ourselves physically to the speaker. It's weird, but it works. Still another is to practice, quickly and efficiently, summarizing what you're hearing from the speaker. This is called Reflective or Active Listening, and I'm going to discuss that in my next post. It is probably one of the most powerful listening tools in existence, and just about nobody uses it.
Food for Thought:
1) Are you an automatic problem-solver?
2) Who do you make crazy in your universe when you don't listen?
3) What's one context where you could do a slightly better job of listening?