Successful collaboration requires listening. For something that seems so simple and natural on the surface, listening is far from simple or easy when we dive deeper. We recently read this profound observation about listening from the actor Alan Alda:
The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed.Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned (New York: Random House, 2006). 160.
Of course it’s crucial for an actor on stage to listen deeply enough to be fluid and alive–we can easily imagine how this level of listening takes a performance from good to excellent. But is the same thing true in other types of work? We recently hosted a course with a group of physicians. We showed them some research that demonstrates that when patients feel truly listened to and heard in the way Alan Alda is describing, they experience less stress and more satisfaction with their care. Then we asked the physicians how often they were listening in a way that would allow them to be fluid and alive with their patients. The answer ranged from 50% of the time to never! Most physicians–striving to do great work–ended up listening with only their clinical ears, not with their entire hearts and minds. While some of them thought they were really listening, they were in fact engaged in a form of “pretending” to listen, a kind of technical hearing that closes down the fluid and lively connection between people. Pretending to listen in this way, no matter what our work, prevents us from responding in a maximally-effective manner that draws out the best collaboration.
Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues.Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, 160.
Maximally-effective listening in complex work is the kind of listening that changes us–changes our ideas, changes our positions, changes our decisions. When we are moving quickly, distracted by too many demands, and overloaded with tasks and deadlines, we are usually engaged in dueling monologues. Likewise when we’re working solely from a script or a checklist, we rarely allow real listening to change us.
Three steps to real listening
Listening is a crucial aspect of the Precision Q+A framework because real listening entails a willingness to change our thinking, just as great questions can change our thinking. Here are three things to attend to as you develop your skill as a listener:
Real listening entails full attention.
Obviously, if we aren’t devoting our full mind and full heart to the conversation, we can’t listen deeply enough to be changed by it. Full attention helps us reach a level of listening that is truly fluid and alive.
Real listening leaves the script behind.
Preparing for meetings and client interactions is crucial, and we suggest part of the best preparation is anticipating the questions that clients or other stakeholders may ask, and making sure that we’ve developed clear and concise answers. But to be fully present during the meeting and truly listen, we must leave the script behind. As one of our colleagues says, “I prepare rigorously. And then, I ask only one prepared question: the first one. After that, I’m listening and thinking together with the other person in an organic way that is totally unpredictable. Because I’ve prepared, I can relax into the moment.” Work conversations like this one, where every question and answer is vital enough to change us and shape our thinking in new ways, are extraordinarily valuable, and unfortunately, increasingly rare. When you know how to interact at this level, you will stand out as people’s go-to thought partner in your workplace.
Real listening slows our thought process down.
When we ask one pre-planned question and then follow along in an organic pattern, dialogue becomes like a dance. We are interdependent with our discussion partners, our mutual attention guides us in new directions. We cannot listen carefully to our partner’s answers if we are forming the next question before they finish talking. Likewise, we can’t answer a question we didn’t hear. We have to listen intentionally all the way through; pause, to reflect and to form our next thought or ask our next question; then proceed together. This kind of interaction might sound slow, but it doesn’t feel slow, it feels deep. Our internal thought process slows down when we enter the world of fluid and alive conversation, even if our outward pace doesn’t change. When we allow the magic of pausing, we don’t have to think while others are talking. We invite more care into the conversation, which is an invitation we all need in these crazy days of workplace distraction and overload.
How to Practice
The next opportunity that comes up at work that requires questions, try an experiment. You can also try this in a friendly dialogue where you want to learn to listen differently.
First, ask questions from a pre-determined list. Watch what happens between you and your conversation partner. Feel the interaction. How fluidly connected are you? Observe yourself. How alive do you feel? Is the conversation at the level that it could change you or change your thinking?
Second, ask one pre-planned question and then follow along in a “dance” of conversation. Allow thinking to travel in an organic pattern. Watch what happens between you and your conversation partner. Feel the interaction. How fluidly connected are you? Observe yourself. How alive do you feel? Is the conversation at the level that it could change you or your thinking?
Which one created a more rewarding, productive conversation? Use the results of this experiment to develop new opportunities where you can really listen in ways that are fluid and alive. We suspect you’ll discover that your work is changing you in ways you could never have predicted.
Join Vervago’s mailing list to receive our Skill Sharpeners and occasional updates about forthcoming publications, new products, and services.