Okay, true enough, this complaint is perhaps more commonly heard between partners or in family life than at work from a co-worker. But this is a prime example of how some interpersonal practices have valuable cross-cutting relevance to relationships in both parts of life. So, why pass up the opportunity to hone skills at home that will also serve you well in your career?
The Core Issue: Causing Others to Feel Heard
If you are getting this feedback (that you never listen), you are probably missing the mark, or you’ve missed the mark enough in the past that others have come to assume it’s a challenge to truly get your undivided attention. The problem, then, is that even if you decide to begin paying more attention when others talk about things that are important to them, they may not notice, they may not notice it. They may just repeat the refrain, “You never listen!” And when you hear that, you may be thinking, “Yes I am. That’s unfair!”
The Challenge: Disconfirming the Other’s Working Hypothesis
Don’t get mad, get smart! You have both created this pattern of behavior – it does take two to tango. So, now you must engage your partner (or your co-workers) in ways that disconfirm their operating beliefs or working hypotheses. If they are covertly (unconsciously) holding this belief about what it’s like to communicate with you, it’s your job to undo that belief system. How? By weakening its credibility, by acting in ways that defy that belief.
A Simple 3-Step Solution: Let Them Know Things are Different
Example: Your partner (or colleague) engages you in conversation. You notice an earnest intensity, perhaps growing tension. You hypothesize: “I think she believes I am not listening, not fully hearing her, not fully understanding her.” You could say, “Hey, just want you to know that I‘m listening.” But that is saying, not doing. And as we all know, walking the walk beats talking the talk every time. So, try this simple 3-step strategy:
1. I can see this is important to you.
2. I want to make sure I am hearing you, your concerns (or point of view).
3. So, lets slow this down a bit. Say a bit more about what you’re thinking and feeling.
It’s Not Just the Verbal: How You Say It Matters
Eye contact, tone of voice, pace of speech – slow your own speech even as you suggest slowing down the conversation. Your total message is one of focus, care, attentiveness, patience, and deference. Yes, deference. It’s a moment of respect toward others in conversation. And then, the active elements of listening – allowing the other an unrushed opportunity to finish their thoughts, asking clarifying question (different from asking others to justify themselves), and then summarizing or at least reflecting the meaning and feelings you are hearing along the way.
Isn’t that Just a Way of Being “Nice” (or Phony)?
It could be if your goal is simply to placate the other. But if we also hypothesize that effective listening can produce informed and considered judgment, and that it usually results in wiser, more effective action than shooting from the hip on important matters, then we should give this practice time to prove itself. We should be learning how to use this practice to greatest effect. We should notice how it affects the ease and quality of engagement with others, if it makes conversation and collaboration more effective.
Recommendation: The Proof is in the Pudding
Try it for a week. Use the 3-step strategy. Learn from your practice. Remember what John Dewey the philosopher of education taught us: “You don’t learn from experience, but from your reflection upon experience.” Notice how it makes you feel: more competent, less defensive, more patient, and more prudent? It’s a skill, but like any practiced and thoughtful change in our behavior, it affects our attitude, and it affects the way others experience our presence and impact. See how it works for you!