Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How to engage in active listening.

Post 361 – I’ve learned a lot about active listening from many years spent coaching senior executives. These are people who often have no one they can talk with openly about important personal and business decisions they need to deal with. Usually, they don't expect instant answers to their problems and challenges. Rather, they want me to listen with them to their thought processes and to search with them for flaws in their reasoning. You don't really know what you believe until you hear yourself saying it out loud.

It's very important that these executives experience that I'm really listening to them intently, with no judgment or distraction. This makes our time together quantifiably different from all of their other interactions. I’ve learned that you can actually 'listen' people into making decisions and engaging in actions that people would ignore if you just told them what you thought they should do. I’ve also found that:

- It helps people spot the flaws in their reasoning when they hear it played back without judgment or criticism.

- Sometimes people just needs to be heard and acknowledged before they’re willing to consider an alternative or to soften their position.

- It’s often easier for someone to listen to and consider another position when they know the other party is listening to and is considering their own position.

- It helps identify areas of agreement so that areas of disagreement are put in perspective and are thus diminished rather than magnified.

- Reflecting back what we hear each other say gives each party a chance to become aware of the different levels that are going on beneath the surface. This helps to bring things into the open where they can be more readily resolved.

- If we accurately understand someone's point of view, we can be more effective in helping them see the flaws in their position. If we listen so we accurately understand another point of view, we can also be more effective in discovering the flaws in our own position.

Here are some other listening tips:

- Usually it’s important to use your own words in paraphrasing your understanding of what you hear. Parroting back someone’s words verbatim is annoying and doesn’t convey an accurate understanding of the message.

- Don’t respond to just the meaning of the words - look for the feelings or intent behind the words. The dictionary or surface meaning usually doesn’t convey the full message.

- Don’t follow your impulse and answer questions immediately they're asked. Sometimes when people ask questions, they really just want to express themselves and aren’t open to hearing an answer.

- Don’t use active listening to hide and avoid revealing your own position.

- Know when to stop using active listening. Once you accurately understand the sender’s message, it's time to respond with your own message.

- If you’re confused and think you don’t understand, tell the person you don’t understand and ask them to say it another way. Alternatively, use your best guess. If you’re wrong, the other party will usually try to correct your misunderstanding.

- Active listening is a very effective first response to someone who's angry, hurt or expressing difficult feelings toward you, especially in important relationships.

- Use eye contact and be aware of your body language. Avoid looking at your watch, or at other people, or at other activities going on nearby. Face the speaker, lean forward toward them and nod your head when it’s appropriate. Be careful about crossing your arms as this makes you appear closed or critical.

- Be empathic and nonjudgmental. You can be accepting and respectful of the person and their feelings and beliefs without invalidating or giving up your own position, or without agreeing with the accuracy and validity of their point of view.

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