Why authentic listening can never be done in total silence

Published by Sunil Uttam on

Authentic listening

Why authentic listening needs more than silence.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. Covey,

And surprisingly, most people believe they are good listeners.

I did too until I realized otherwise.

3 typical listening scenarios

Let’s look at the following three conversation scenarios between two people to understand what is truly authentic listening.

For the sake of the example, Ravi is talking while Hemant is listening. Ravi and Hemant are in the marketing team of an organization, and Hemant is Ravi’s boss.

Listening Scenario 1:

Ravi: I think we need a Social Media strategy in place soon.

Hemant: I disagree. Our product is B2B and Social media is not a great channel for B2B sales.

Ravi: While you are right that Social Media may not bring in a direct sale, however, I think it can influence the sale.

Hemant: There is no sure way to measure the impact of social media. Let us not waste time and resources on this. Let’s focus on what is working.

Ravi: shuts up and goes away

Outcome:

Idea killed before being understood. Ravi feels unheard, disrespected, and disheartened.

Listening Scenario 2:

Ravi: I think we need a Social Media strategy in place soon.

Hemant: patient and silent

Ravi: While Social Media may not bring in a direct sale, however, I think it can influence the sale.

Hemant: Hmm 

Ravi: Several of our customers are following our pages, and by engaging them regularly, they will learn of our progress

Hemant: makes facial expressions of interest Uh…hmmm, go on.

Ravi: We need to hire a person for handling our social media pages

Hemant: You are saying we need a team for Social Media?

Ravi: Yes, a dedicated team who can post updates regularly and engage the audiences.

Hemant: Listen, I heard you, but there is no sure way to measure the impact of social media. Let’s not waste time and resources on this. Let us focus on what is working, which is mailers. Keep customers informed via regular mailers.

Ravi: But, posts on Social Media are also seen by other potential prospects.

Hemant: Our product is B2B and Social media is not a great channel for B2B sales. 

Outcome:

Idea “listened to” but not understood entirely and killed.

Ravi feels that the conversation remained unfinished and lopsided. 

Listening Scenario 3:

Ravi: I think we need a Social Media strategy in place soon.

Hemant: I am listening

Ravi: While Social Media may not bring in a direct sale, however, I think it can influence the purchase.

Hemant: Hmm 

Ravi: Several of our customers are following our pages, and by engaging them regularly, they will learn of our progress

Hemant: Do we have data on the current engagement numbers on our pages?

Ravi: Yes, we do, and here they are, have a look at these graphs.

Hemant: I wasn’t aware that we have such a decent level of engagement on our pages. Go on, this sounds interesting

Ravi: This suitable engagement level is despite our sporadic, inconsistent posts

Hemant: Hmmm.

Ravi: If we can hire a dedicated person, who can post updates regularly and engage the social media audiences, we can drive up these numbers.

Hemant: What’s the kind of person who can do this? Can we repurpose someone from within the company?

…..conversation went on to develop the idea into a strategy

Hemant: I always thought our product being B2B, Social media may not be an excellent channel for sales. However, thanks, Ravi, I now see how SM can help us build a brand and influence sales indirectly. Please go ahead with your plans. You have my full support.

Outcome:

Idea developed in collaboration, Ravi feels “gotten,” Hemant now sees a different point of view.

So what authentic listening is NOT

Its quite clear from the outcomes of the 3 scenarios, that authentic listening has nothing to do with 

  • not talking when others are speaking, 
  • acknowledging with facial expressions or sounds and/or 
  • repeating what you heard.

So what makes me a poor listener

I always thought I was a good listener until I realized otherwise with some deep reflections.

I observed how my biases, beliefs, pre-conceived notions were regularly getting in the way of authentically listening to my teammates, friends, or family.

“It’s not possible to listen to the situation, event, circumstance, or person newly and openly at the moment when I only hear the voice of my own predefined opinions, interpretations, assigned meaning, certainties, positions, beliefs, concepts, and what I already know to be true. I hear it before anything else. Werner Erhard calls this already always listening. It’s inflexible. It’s uncreative. It’s on automatic. It drowns out newness, generosity, and possibility.” – Laurence Platt, Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

My desire to respond, to always be right, lead with my ideas, was actually scuttling good plans and nipping them in the bud. 

I learned that by being silent and using my silence to prepare for my next response or to identify faults in the speaker’s logic, is not being supportive or cooperative. 

And so what will make me a good listener

I learned that the single most important thing I must do so that I listen authentically is to ask questions.

I must learn to ask questions with the intent of clarifying, discovering, gaining insight, and not to challenge, threaten, or criticize the idea.

I realized that this kind of questioning is constructive and indicates that I have not just heard but also comprehended it well enough to want additional information.

I also learned that it is not enough to ask the right constructive questions, but it’s critical HOW I ask these questions.

Authentic listening is one in which the speaker feels “gotten,” feels a sense of release, and feels a build-up of self-esteem.

Authentic listening creates a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly (its no wonder that therapists thrive)

When authentic listening happens, neither party gets defensive, feels attacked, or feels competitive.  

Listeners are trying to help and not win an argument.

Can I give suggestions during a conversation?

Sure, but this can be done after the listener has established a level of trust or credibility with the speaker.

Being silent the whole time and then throwing in a suggestion feels inauthentic.

Criticizing along the way and then suggesting, may again suggest an uncooperative attitude. 

Can I fake listening?

You can try, but your mirror neurons will give you away.

An increasing body of research suggests that your body language and expressions show your feelings and emotions indeed to another, and you can’t hide them ever.

E.g., if you are harboring disgust for someone, it will show up even if you smile at another.

In fact, mirror neurons are so powerful that your feelings can be felt even remotely. Hence, be aware of your thoughts. 

Estimates suggest that 80% of what we communicate comes from these non-verbal signals. Strangely so, you listen with your eyes, face, and body as well as your ears.

So, in short, you can’t fake authentic listening. 

You must practice and get better at authentic listening. 

So what has the practice of authentic listening done to me?

I am not entirely there yet, but I am on the way.

By making a conscious effort to meditate daily and to become mindful, I am getting better at the art of authentic listening.

I realized that it is improving my productivity, my teams’ morale, business outcomes and also my relationships.

It has made me more empathetic. 

Listening is an active supporting act rather than a passive absorption act.

And I learn new things by authentically listening.

“The highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height, and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.” – HBR

Thanks for reading. Would love to hear your views on authentic listening. Please do leave a comment below.

Image courtesy: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

This post is in line with my anti advice policy, which is to share insights and learning from my life with my friends, associates and let them decide if and how to leverage this in their lives. I don’t have a fixed schedule to write, but I will attempt to write regularly. Surely it won’t be more often than once a week. I invite you to subscribe to my blog, connect with me and share your insights as well, so we can learn and grow together. 


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