Posts Tagged ‘listening habits’
Someone sent me a Job Aid on listening. The gesture was thoughtful because I like to know what’s going on in the field.
The Job Aid is well designed, has a model of different forms of listening styles and how they should be used. At first blush, I thought it was worth the $1.95 per card. Then I looked closely at the content, and once again bridled at the assumptions about listening as a style that governs how we pay attention. My goal here is not to discredit the Job Aid, but it is to surface the differences between Listening as a Habit and as a Style.
Our research indicates that Listening is a Habit formed in our brain, body and emotions. Our brain develops neuropathways around repeated patterns. For example, for self-preservation we’ve learned to look both ways when crossing the street, nod when we agree, and shrink from people who scare us. Situations trigger us to respond; and it’s the formation of those responses that is defined as a habit or a style.
Psychologists define Habit and Style as:
Habit is any regularly repeated behavior that requires little or no thought and is learned rather than innate. A habit is developed through reinforcement and repetition.
Style has been defined as an individual’s relatively consistent inclinations and preferences across contexts. It is a dynamic and organized set of personal traits and patterns of innate behavior.
The stronger the habit, the more we rely upon it, but the good news is a habit can be changed or modified with intention and practice. Whereas, our style is a distinctive pattern that is an organizing principle that changes very little, regardless of context. For example, an Extrovert may seek less stimuli with age, but probably will not become an Introvert.
The beauty of thinking of listening as a habit instead of as a style is that we can learn techniques to modify habits we overuse, and gain access to ways of listening we under-use. For example, a person who listens mainly for facts and ignores feelings misses a large portion of an interaction. By learning to observe body language and tone-of-voice that person will increase awareness of what lies beneath words and data, and alter a habit.
You’ve heard me say so many times that the Listening Golden Rule is: Listen to Others as They Want to Be Heard. That requires us to identify the listening habits we’ve formed, ask if they serve us well, then revise as needed to become a master listener.
Cultural entropy is the amount of energy in an organisation that is consumed in unproductive work. It is a measure of the conflict, friction and frustration that exists within an organisation. Barrett Values Centre
We don’t usually link the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy, a fundamental law of physics, with Listening. That is, until we try to understand why billions of dollars are lost as a result of unproductive work.
The natural state of the world is disorder or entropy, but “entropy can only be overcome by an organizing energy from an external force…We are fighting to show a chaotic world a glimpse of that which provides the only hope for stifling her natural and powerful spiral into disorder.” J. Matthew Brunson, M.D.
That’s where listening comes in to play. It is the vital skill to stem the tide of counterproductive noise in the system.
Let’s take a very common example: selecting an item to be included in a budget.
Manager: We have some money remaining in the budget. It’s just enough to purchase the project management software we’ve wanted.
Direct Report: That would be great. I’ll talk to the vendor about costs and timing.
At that point it seems as though there’s order. But wait.
Another direct report says the money should go for additional headcount to ease burden on employees, customers lobby for price reduction, and the CFO wants to use the funds elsewhere.
Disorder. There’s no decision, players are frustrated, time has been wasted, and the issue has gotten complex.
Heeding Dr. Brunson’s advice, listening would have supplied sufficient energy to overcome the chaos that arose. The interaction devolved into a Ping-Pong match without any attempt to learn from one another to create shared meaning, the very essence of communication.
Similar scenarios occur constantly throughout a business day, pushing an organization towards chaos instead of pulling it towards sensible order. Following are three pointers to control entropy:
1. Listen to your stakeholders. Look beyond analytics and talk to real people to get at what’s behind the numbers. If you observe demoralized people, don’t hide in your office or ask their manager what’s wrong, talk to the people with the problems. If you’re losing customers, don’t send a survey, go and spend time with them. If the players in the budget item case would have asked some good questions and checked the answers, an informed decision could have been reached efficiently without wasting time and eroding trust in one another.
2. Teach your employees how to listen. Listening is a means, not an end, but it still requires skill to do it well so the process of listening is transparent and the emphasis is on content. The Golden Rule we’ve so often been taught, “Do unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You,” isn’t applicable for listening. Instead, it is “Listen to Others as They Want to Be Heard.”
3. Listen for and monitor the level of organizational entropy. Redundancies, employee and customer turnover, re-dos, too many/too few people copied on memos, active rumor mill, and pipeline inconsistency, are all indicators of disorder that’s already entrenched and doing great harm. One role of a leader is to observe the horizon for signs of emerging entropy, and act swiftly to gain control.
Good listening is an energy-saver and a productivity enabler.
Recently, I attended a masterful performance given by six members of the University of Colorado music faculty. I was fortunate to be right in the center of the first row, with no obstructions to block my rapt attention.
During their performance I observed many lessons on listening that we can apply at work, home, school—anywhere that depends upon our ability to perform at our best.
Transferable musical lessons:
Know the score
Musicians: Each musician practiced over and over until they knew every note, sign, and sound. They knew the piece cold so they could concentrate on playing together.
Application for the workplace: When we understand the context, people, expectations and our own knowledge, we can concentrate on what’s being said.
Allow for different voices
Musicians: There were six musicians with a range of experience, techniques and interpretations of the music as well as three different instruments with individual sounds. At various times one of the instruments might be most prominently featured, while the others play to support that stronger voice.
Application for the workplace: There are usually several people in an interchange, each with something to say. Turn-taking is crucial to allow for individuals to share a point-of-view or data that is vital to others. No one person should monopolize an interaction, which will drown out others who might have highly valuable information to add.
Follow different leaders
Musicians: My friend Lina Bahn, first violinist, explained that leadership among musicians in this sextet is interchangeable as there’s no conductor, First violinist’s part is usually more demanding than second violin, but all are equally important. Responsibility is shared by everyone and determined by the music.
Application for the workplace: Sharing the platform is not always easy, especially when we have something we deem important to say. However, understanding that leadership is not a positional right, but an earned platform, allows for the problem or the situation to guide what is said and by whom.
Connect with one another
Musicians: There’s a lot of body language being “spoken” among the members of the sextet. Eyebrows raise, heads nod, bodies sway, and legs move, all actions that encourage fellow-musicians to engage and stay focused. The audience is part of the performance, too. The sextet is energized by applause and appropriate body language (though humming along is not appreciated), so the audience and the performers feed off one another.
Application for the workplace: We learn to read one another’s signals when we’re face-to-face. Emailing will not relay all information that is required to collaborate and make fully understood decisions. Our listening habits are developed in our brain, body and emotions that emerge during interactions. Strive to establish a co-created interaction where it’s a give-and-give (not take) among all communicators.
Musicians: Because I was watching so closely and at an ideal vantage point, I noticed that when one musician played a particularly demanding passage, a couple of the others smiled slightly or leaned their body and instrument towards their colleague in recognition of work done well. When I asked Lina about that she said acknowledgement of a musical idea is highly valued and greatly appreciated. The musicians can’t miss a beat, so the interaction has to be subtle and brief.
Application for the workplace: Even the smallest recognition makes a difference to people. Listening to someone and saying, “Thanks for making your points in a clear manner” or “I appreciate that you had to learn new software in record time” or even a smile, will probably make that person’s day and will increase the likelihood that behavior will be repeated.
Musicians: A brief period of silence with its own place and quality, is as important as sound. The musicians, briefly at rest, are poised, expectant and ready to resume their “conversation.”
Application for the workplace: Moments of silence give people the chance to think and not feel obligated to fill the space with unnecessary sound. The gift of silence is golden.
Focus on the present
Musicians: More than anything, the success of the sextet comes from their ability to stay focused. But on what—the score, one another, their instruments, the audience, physical comfort? Yes to all, but without losing concentration. They are on alert for what matters, split second by split second.
Application for the workplace: Giving full attention to a single task or person, unequivocally increases the likelihood that the fewer mistakes will be made. When we let go of the myth that we can multi-task and replace it with the knowledge that we can single-task, our listening proficiency will increase.
Whatever the context, consider how you can behave with the same degree of commitment, focus and respect as a sextet whose every performance relies on well-honed listening mastery.
One of the challenges for Amanda and those who work with her is because of homophily: the notion that people like similar kinds of people and things. Amanda is dissimilar to most of her colleagues, and to Huan, her manager. Nevertheless, Amanda is valued for her ability to innovate, which Huan recognizes is a crucial component of the work of the medical devices team.
Huan wants some practical tips for how to work with Amanda to channel her questions and ideas, but without losing any of her creativity.
- The biggest issue lies within the team and Huan, and not Amanda. They do not understand homophily and how their lack of similarity to Amanda’s style impacts their working relationships. So, the first tip is for the team to learn their individual and group listening profiles and become educated about how listening habits form in their brains, bodies and emotions and dictate the way they interact with others.
- That said there are techniques Huan can use with Amanda. Set listening expectations. If Huan had told Amanda before the team meeting that he needed her to listen as though she was from the FDA, she would most likely have stayed on track. Instead, he proceeded with the ten questions without Amanda knowing her role, which caused her to spin ideas without a framework.
- Limit the number of questions or ideas Amanda can offer. Again, this is a technique to set parameters. The difference is if a Conceptualizing Listener is told that three great ideas are more valuable than ten mediocre ones, s/he will self-limit and listen for what is most important.
- Provide Conceptualizing Listeners with note cards or stickies, and ask them to note their questions and ideas on them. Huan wants Amanda’s questions and ideas; however, he might prefer them after a meeting or discussion when he can reflect on them and not be blindsided or overwhelmed like what happened in the team preparation meeting.
- Don’t always try to rein in Amanda, but hold separate idea-generating meetings when everyone is expected to do what comes naturally for Amanda. It’s important that Amanda has opportunities to shine and for her teammates to stretch their listening and thinking to increase their homophily behaviors to be more like Conceptualizing Listeners.
- Conceptualizing Listeners are often optimistic and happy, two qualities that every organization needs to value.
Of the four listening styles, I find that Conceptualizing Listeners have the most challenging time getting heard in organizations. They generate ideas while they’re listening, which can make it confusing for others, especially those who are action-oriented and want to get to the point. But, Conceptualizers are often the ones with innovative ideas.
Amanda, a research scientist in the medical technology field, has an idea-a-minute. She listens attentively, seemingly only for a short while, then begins to ask a lot of questions and offer ideas. Her boss, Huan, has told her more than once to stay focused and to listen. Actually, Amanda can cite almost everything that others said, and the ideas she offers are frequently innovative. Nevertheless, she can seem inattentive and scattered.
Following is an actual situation that shows Amanda in action. Huan’s team was preparing to meet with people from the FDA about the status of a new medical device. The company was anxious for the meeting to go well to move the product along in the approval process. For the team meeting, Huan, a very precise and careful manager, prepared a list of potential questions the FDA representatives might ask.
At the team prep meeting, Huan started to read the questions, and as he got to the third one, Amanda asked him to give them some more background on how he came up with the questions, what, if any, did the FDA submit, and who did he gather data from to actually answer the questions. Two of Amanda’s teammates said they were sure Huan did his homework, and they didn’t need to have her questions answered.
Huan with less energy than before, continued with his list, and Amanda sat quietly until the tenth and final question was put to the team. Silence reigned until Amanda, sitting forward and with a pondering tone said, “Have we addressed potential side effects for orphan diseases; and in the third question you said 35% of patients were tested, but in the fifth question you cited a different population, was that also 35%? I’m wondering if the FDA will be concerned with how the weight of the product might need to differ for males, females and children? What if we ask the FDA to brainstorm with us to develop a more exhaustive list for review?”
Eyes rolled, jaws tensed, and feet tapped. Amanda’s teammates didn’t want to hear more ideas and questions, they wanted to move forward, meet with the FDA, and respond to FDA questions rather than take more time to address Amanda’s list that would surely slow the process and might never be surfaced by the FDA.
Huan has asked us how to help channel Amanda’s Conceptualizing listening without losing any of her innovative thinking. What 2-3 pieces of advice do you have for him and others who want to know how to interact with Conceptualizing Listeners?
I’ll chime in with my advice on the next post.
People with big egos, by nature, are poor listeners. No news there. So let’s look at how having an over-sized ego can influence one’s ability or desire to listen.
Following are factors that cause ego to overshadow listening.
- Attachment to one’s own needs
Here’s a situation I recently witnessed that exemplifies this statement. I was visiting someone in a medical rehabilitation facility. When I arrived, the patient, a highly regarded professional, was hopping mad and anxious to tell me about the incompetence of the night nurse who did not listen to him. The night nurse, a person who says she’s devoted to helping others, took me aside to say the patient was uncooperative.
His position: “I’m an important person and I expect others to listen to me and do what I want.” Her position, “I’m the authority here and I expect patients to comply with my orders.”
A clash of egos.
It was not my place to intervene, so I watched two people talking past one another. He kept explaining his own needs and she kept throwing policy at him. Eventually, the nursing supervisor was brought in, and the first thing she did was ask the patient, “Can you please tell me from your standpoint, what’s the issue?” After he explained, she followed with, “What is it you want that you’re not getting?” When he responded that he wasn’t being heard, bless her, she asked him to explain what being heard would be like. Together, the supervisor, night nurse and patient developed some very simple solutions that satisfied him and were agreeable to the facility.
- Belief that one’s opinion is more valid than another’s facts
My brother is a judge and he often says that one of the most challenging parts of his job is to help people understand that opinions and anecdotes are not facts, regardless of who says them. But people with big egos often think that their opinions are as valid as any scientifically based or evidenced facts. They don’t listen when the facts don’t fit within their schema of beliefs.
- Need to be right
There’s a difference between wanting to get to a right answer, something that problem-solving listeners do well, and wanting to be right. Being right usually means someone or something has to be wrong. If the Being Right person’s ego is questioned, s/he usually shuts down and listening stops.
In the rehab facility situation, the nurse stopped listening to the patient when he questioned a practice. Her response was, “Because that’s what the rules say.” How often do you hear some variation of that remark, when it’s really an excuse to be in the right rather than to listen fully and consider options?
- Desire to compete
Some people love to exercise their egos by entering into battle. They don’t care so much about the outcomes as they do the fight. They parry and thrust, which means there’s precious little time left in an interaction to listen to the other person, especially if the other person has valid points and can also compete. The competitive person has no time to listen because s/he’s busy thinking of the next strategy that might win both the battle and the war.
I think I was much like this competitor as a teen. I entered many interactions, especially with my parents, intending to wear down the other side. The more exasperated my parents became the more my ego was fed with a sense of triumph. Fortunately, I got older and the rewards of collaboration were more ego-satisfying.
- Intimidation equals compliance
People with big egos often force others into agreement, or at least what they perceive to be agreement. Some people use their organizational power and position to intimidate, others use their persona and still others use knowledge to maneuver people into saying they agree. The person with the big ego walks away satisfied that others are in agreement with him/her. But, if s/he checked up on actions taken, s/he’d see that few actions were executed. All the people wanted was for the haranguing to stop, so they said yes without listening; therefore hollow promises were made with little intention of acting on them.
In this case, not only the bombastic person wasn’t listening, the audience wasn’t either. The egoist was in his world convinced there was agreement from others who actually just suffered in silence.
What other ego factors would you add and how do they impact poor listening?
I was visiting my wonderful brother in the hospital, and his longtime internist, Dr. Stephen Shore, came to visit. Now, if that wasn’t amazing in itself, we got into a conversation about interpersonal skills among health care professionals.
Dr. Shore is known for his incredible patient care, and had a lot to say about both the power and failings of interpersonal communication in the world of healthcare. Following are some of his salient points:
- Body positioning:
The doctor asked my brother’s nurse where she places herself when attending a patient. She said it depends upon what she’s in the room to do, but she tries to make eye contact when interacting. She said if she has news to convey or gather, she sits so she is on the same eye level as the patient. If she has to do any procedure or deal with equipment, she tells the patient what’s she’s doing so the patient knows what’s going on. I noticed that’s what she did when caring for my brother—she was attentive and professional.
Dr. Shore applauded that behavior and said it’s inexcusable to stand over a patient. “It’s an unnecessary display of power.” If the patient is on a table, Dr. Shore pulls up a chair to be on the same plane. If a patient is upset, he listens, then pulls the chair forward a bit to make the interaction more personal, “Not much because I don’t want to invade the patient’s space, but I want to be close enough that I can pat a hand if that would help.”
“A doctor can show authority by knowing your stuff and showing compassion—that’s all the authority needed.”
- Speaking in code:
“The field of medicine is complex enough without having to use terms that patients don’t understand. Speak in plain language. I guess the real issue is too many healthcare workers want to separate themselves from the patients. They see the patient as a body to cure, rather than as a multi-dimensional person who’s a partner in the battle for good health.”
Then he paused to say that many patients these days seem to know as much as the physicians because they do extensive Internet research. “Misinformed patients who are sure they understand their problems and know how to treat them, require time to be properly educated.” What he said reminded me of kids who think they need every toy advertised on TV.
- Diagnosis without even seeing the patient:
“I’ve often seen a group of doctors, residents, and interns standing outside a patient’s room. They all have computers and they pour over the patient’s records on them. The docs talk about the data, compare this situation to what they’ve seen or studied, and make a diagnosis. They enter that info into their computers, hand it off to an RN or PA, and then move on to the next room.
Dr. Shore was appalled at the procedure. “That poor patient is separated from his own medical care, doesn’t know what’s happening, and often becomes more ill because of fear and isolation. We all know part of healing comes from touch and interaction. In that situation only the clinical part of medicine is being practiced.”
I asked if there’s an answer to the dilemma given the demands on the healthcare industry. He said that would take another visiting time to answer, but one idea is to force healthcare workers to practice interpersonal skills during their schooling. “They should be taught about body language, eye contact, tone, cultural influences, how to ask questions, and listening. The stuff you do is as important to my practice as my knowledge of medicine.”
Know anyone at a medical/nursing/PA school who’d invite us in to work with their students?
We saw a movie, “Not that Funny,” at the Denver Film Festival and I wish I could send you a clip about listening. Essentially, the protagonist wins the “girl,” not by what he thought would win her, his ability to make her laugh, but by his ability to listen. He even goes to a stand up comic, hoping to learn how to be funny for this woman. The comic gives him hints, but then, after spending time with the protagonist, says, “Man, you listen. No one in my life has ever listened to me like that. You really have the math right—one mouth and two ears.”
How often have you been gifted with a person who listens to you with full attention and appreciation? If the skill of deep listening is so revered and desired, how come being a good listener is not the norm, rather than a rare gift?
I can’t tell you how often people who have taken our webinars/workshop or have been coached by a certified practitioner, make it a point to say how much they’ve changed as a result. They tell us they’re more conscious about how they and others listen, what true listening looks like, and how to adapt their listening style to the way others listen.
That’s the best news for any skill development, that people absorb the learning and apply it to their relationships with others. Remember, the guy got the girl because he listened.
Join our campaign to make deep listening the norm.
“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” - Jimi Hendrix
I’ve been reminded three times this week about how listening within oneself makes all other listening much better. The first occurrence was in yoga, the second was watching kids play soccer, and the third in an NPR piece on mindfulness.
I’ve been a yoga practitioner for decades and most classes begin and end with silence and breathing. At the start of class we close our eyes, sit and breath for a few minutes to help transition from our busy day to our yoga practice. We end class by gathering up what we’ve done in class to prepare us to re-enter the rest of our day.
I suffer from a “monkey mind” that is chattering away instead of staying present within myself. Instead of listening to my breath and clearing my head, I start to think—there’s an endless number of things to think about too, so I lose the intent and beauty of the final posture.
However, this past week at the end of class, I stretched out, blanket over my reclining body, and my monkey mind was still. The instructor’s voice was soothing, but I heard none of her words. As my breathing deepened I “heard” my organs doing their work, muscles sighing as they relaxed, and circulation system flowing throughout my body. There were no separate parts to Marian; we were one—inside and out.
For the rest of that day, and even for days to come, I heard people in new ways—words were packed with meaning, what wasn’t said came to the fore, and my focus on others was total. I’m grateful for the experience and want so to be able to sustain the relationship between what goes on within me and how I interact with others.
The second incident was when I was in Vail watching an extended family member play soccer. At one point in the game, ten-year-old Max, playing midfield, was under siege. He did a masterful job deflecting the attack. On the sidelines there was lots of cheering, but like many an athlete, he never broke concentration.
After the scoreless game ended, I asked Max what that moment was like for him, and he remembered the scene in slow motion. He replied something like, “I heard my heart pumping and my lungs breathing, then after I kicked the ball away from me, I heard my coach saying I did a great job holding position.” Being in the zone like that isn’t rare for an athlete, but what was enlightening to me was that the coach was at the opposite end of the field, out of earshot, and still Max’s auditory acuity was so heightened he could hear the coach’s words, sensing they were for him.
The third occurrence was when listening to NPR, I heard the college professor guest discussing mindfulness, (can you imagine that at most colleges?). He spoke of an undergraduate class he took and the first assignment was to scrutinize a raisin without actually tasting it. I think he said each student had to identify sixty-four different things about the little dried up grape (there were three in those last four words). That experiment was followed by lecture and even more hands-on experiences, all designed to help students become aware of their inner and outer worlds to be mindful at all times and under all circumstances.
So, when people ask me how to become a master listener, do I suggest they study a raisin, concentrate like a competitive athlete, or take up yoga? Maybe. I do know that the kind of listening people yearn for requires the listener to go deep inside to hear all that’s available and to be 100% present with others.
Following are some questions that might help you inventory your listening mindfulness:
- Are you aware of your “monkey mind” or internal chattering that’s happening when you are in an interaction?
- Do you consciously take a deep breath to focus or re-focus your attention on the speaker(s)?
- Have you created techniques to still your inattention? Do you practice those techniques?
- When you are in an interaction do you endeavor to shut out all distractions?
- Can you slow down the speed with which you react to what’s going on around you?
- Do you take time to understand the speaker, as if s/he’s a raisin to be examined before actually beginning an interaction?
- To what extent do you balance listening from within with all that surrounds you?
- Once you are in a state of mindfulness, how do you sustain it under challenging circumstances?
Let us learn how you practice being a mindful listener, and what effect it has on your interpersonal interactions.
“Marian, very interesting and quite varied. All comments proving that you get nothing for nothing.” Iain Duffin
Iain Duffin is one of the executives interviewed for the personal development journey study (results posted September 26-October 17). His comment brought to mind the notion that listening requires effort, but often people assume it’s natural and easy. As most writers and researchers say, hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is an anatomical function for most people while listening is a conscious skill.
I’m a frequent traveler and marvel at the cost to airlines of agents who mouth words, but don’t listen. For example, the other day two flyers had an international connection problem that the agent probably heard thousands of times. The young couple was flying to the middle east for some family emergency, she quite pregnant, wearing a burka, and not a native English speaker, needed the agent to be helpful and confident. Instead the agent apologized, said there was no way they could get to their destination within 24 hours of their scheduled arrival and suggested they rebook. The couple stood their paralyzed. Finally the woman requested that the agent look at other airlines. The agent said she couldn’t do that unless it was an emergency. Now I, standing next to the couple, knew that was the case, but the agent wasn’t paying attention from the start and went into automatic pilot mode. The whole transaction took much longer and was much less customer-friendly than was necessary had the agent been listening.
I imagine if I asked the agent why she didn’t pick up on the couple’s situation, she would have put the blame on overwork, or some other airline fault. It’s not unusual for employees to tell me their organization is short staffed. During this economic recovery that’s probably true in many cases. But sometimes the real issue is inefficiency that comes from acting before understanding. If they added staff, more people not listening wouldn’t solve their perceived problems. We’ve seen many examples of fewer skilled people accomplishing much more than many who haven’t been trained.
When we’ve worked with organizations to increase listening, and employees practice flexible and focused listening, there’s more efficiency because fewer things fall through the cracks. Rather than glossing over what senders are saying, our listeners:
- Ask enough questions to be absolutely clear about the issues and expectations
- Loop back to the original points made by the sender to check for accuracy
- Use different listening strategies depending on the style of the sender
- Over-communicate to heighten importance of the message(s)
- Be congruent with message, body language and tone-of-voice
To master all those listening skills, as Iain says, means putting in effort—every time and for every person.