Pay attention. Notes to self on what it means to actually listen.

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As one of life’s more ‘verbose’ characters (let’s call it ‘extroverted thinking’) developing as a coach has meant tackling a tendency I have that sometimes gets in my way – and that’s not fully and actively listening.  Which matters not just if you’re a coach, but if you happen to be a human being looking for meaningful relationships.

Last week I was working with a group of trainee coaches alongside Lois Burton, who asked me to run the group through the premises of Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to Think. Listening to Ignite the Human Mind.’   This meant going back to some core principles for coaching, and also taking another long hard look at how I actually listen.

“We think we listen, but we don’t. We finish each other’s sentences, we interrupt each other, we moan together, we fill in the pauses with our own stories, we look at our watches, we sigh, frown, tap our finger, read the newspapers, or walk away. We give advice, give advice, give advice. Even professional listeners listen poorly much of the time. They come in too soon with their own ideas” (37).


Listening with the motor running

How much is this the default mode for many of us?  Even if I am not explicitly engaged in any of these behaviours – interrupting, yawning, surreptitiously checking email – I know I personally need to be mindful of how much I am actively listening.   Listening with the motor running means we’re trying to get just enough information to form an opinion, solve the problem, or to share our own story.  And don’t get me wrong, in some situations these can be the hallmarks of a truly fantastic conversation or meeting of minds.  But not always, and very likely not as often as we might like to think.

If you find that while you listen you’re figuring out when it can be your turn to talk, well, your motor’s running.

Pay attention

True listening requires self-discipline and the ability to give high quality attention. It requires we unlearn a lot what we’ve been taught about what it means to listen.  For Kline, active listening means being a catalyst for the thinker: The quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking…”  

Some of us are good at sitting and looking empathetic, but full attention means we have to clear our minds of inner chatter. And the results can be powerful: “when you are listening to someone, much of the quality of what you’re hearing is your effect on them.  When people feel truly listened too, and know they can speak uninterrupted, you can enable great thinking and personal breakthroughs.

I know I am someone who pays attention – it’s my intrinsic curiosity about people and their stories that has led me to coaching.  But I also know that I can be quick to form opinions, predict where I think the story is headed, ask leading questions, formulate solutions to problems they haven’t completely explained yet, and – at times, if I am not careful – jump in with my own voice.

So get comfortable with silence (shut up already)

Silence is one of the most powerful tools for a listener; becoming skilled at using silence is challenging for many of us who have been taught that pauses are embarrassing and that we must fill the gaps to rescue someone in a potentially awkward situation. It’s also challenging for those of us whose brains go on overdrive as we do listen to someone. But Kline reminds us that the fact that a person has stopped speaking does not mean that they have stopped thinking – give them time and space to work it through.

“when a person is thinking out loud and suddenly is quiet but is not stuck, the quiet is alive. Neither the person nor the quiet needs rescuing. They need attention only – and more quiet” (51).

Helping someone is not the same as thinking for them 

Those of us who are managers or parents or simply one of life’s ‘rescuers’ need to constantly remind ourselves that helping someone is not the same as thinking for them. Our tendency is to go rushing in and offer a solution, even if it does save us time in the short-term. We may think we are being selfless, but (as I talk about here) there may in fact be a latent payoff we’re not quite admitting to:  we get to take control and get ‘recognised’ as superior. And when we do this, Kline notes, we infantilise and disempower – it all becomes about us and our egos.

And yet. (In defence of finishing someone’s sentence once in a while)

While Kline’s ideas are invaluable in helping me reflect on how I listen (if I listen) I can’t help looking at some of her lists of ‘Bad Things We Do’ when we interact with others, and wonder if it’s all quite that black and white.  Let’s take two major misdemeanours – interrupting and finishing someone’s sentence.  On the face of it, both these offences seem straight up and down bad.  I only have to cast my mind back a pretty short distance before I remember a few infractions of my own – and I wince.

But I know I have friends and colleagues who do this too – and have done it to me. On occasion it can be infuriating – in a business meeting where everyone competes for air time, for example. But there are other times when I feel affirmed by it.  Last weekend we had friends over, and I think we spent nearly the entire afternoon yakking, laughing, interjecting, talking over each other, arguing, and then laughing some more.  (Safe to say, none of us are introverts, and if one of us had been, it likely would have been a nightmarish experience). From the outside, the dynamic would have looked chaotic, been very loud, and violated every rule in the ‘take turns and listen with full rapt and respectful attention’ book.   But there are times when the fact that someone has finished my thought, or interjected to share a story, means I feel connected and aligned to that person – not silenced by them.

Of course – context is everything.  Finishing someone’s thought to show “I hear you. I am with you. I think that way too” as opposed to “Right. Let’s wrap this up more efficiently, shall we? My turn now” are two very different things, but there’s often a pretty fine line between them. And even though we may intend the former, this might not translate into how we’re received.  This is something emphasised by sociolinguists like Deborah Tannen: what we perceive as a interruption could well be a case of a different conversational style or rhythm. So telling someone ‘don’t interrupt’ is relatively useless advice; instead we need to be aware of different styles and how our own style may impact others.

And by the same token, we need to be aware of how we listen (or not) so when the time calls for us to turn off the motor and pay attention, we’re ready and able.

One thought on “Pay attention. Notes to self on what it means to actually listen.

    […] for behaviours that can get in yours (and others) ways.  My extroversion doesn’t give me an excuse to not listen properly or give people space to reflect. We have to be mindful of self-fulfilling prophesies, or treating […]

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