My pauses are just too long for her to take. I tease her mercilessly about the habit, and, for fun, stop whatever I’m saying whenever she interjects. When she’s guessed wrong, I pause to say…
“No – good guess. Do you want to try again?”
She laughs and waits for me to continue. A few minutes later, she’ll do the same thing. I’m sure I’d find this terribly annoying if she was interrupting to just sneak in her point or to change the subject. But that’s not the case. This friend is a fantastic listener. She leans into the story and loves “guessing” where I’m headed. She’s a terrific audience because I know she’s engaged in my stories.
Here is a little experiment. Think about who you like to talk to most. That person is most certainly an active listener. (I know this because nobody likes to talk to someone that isn’t listening.) Like you, most people are perceptive at noticing whether or not you’re listening. The subtleties lie in a listener’s follow-up questions, clarifying comments, and non-verbal cues. When someone really hears you, you get it intuitively.
As a four-year-old, my son would repeat a question to me over and over until he HEARD me speak a response (over a non-verbal cue that I had heard him). A nod or actually moving toward the request (“May I have honey toast?”) wouldn’t do the trick. I had to verbally respond. If I didn’t say something, he would pepper me with the same question over and over again until he HEARD me audibly respond. (His ability to interpret non-verbal cues hadn’t kicked in yet!) Still, in those years, he trained me to listen quickly and respond declaratively. If I stopped and focused on him before he had to badger me, we were both happier. When he knew I was engaged, we could move on to more pleasant conversations.
Do the people who work with you feel like they have to badger you to get your attention? Do they know that they’ve been heard? When you’re leading people, how quickly and clearly do you focus on them? Are their words important to you? Think about how your listening speed impacts the people around you.
A funny thing happens when we listen to people speak (as in a company meeting or conference call) or talk (in a conversational way). Too often, we spend the time we should be really listening, thinking about how we want to respond, retort, or counter-point. We argue with them in our heads, form lots of things that we’d say if we had more courage (or ability), and, as you likely guess, we always win the imaginary argument. The tragedy, though, is the time and energy spent reflects that our goal isn’t to listen, absorb, and understand. If we make the communication all about our agenda (and what WE want to say), we’re missing the foundational ingredient for leadership, collaboration, or followship.
Remember, the goal is to be QUICK listeners!! This also means entering into fisticuffs with one of listening’s purest foes… distractions. Have you been to meetings where people are constantly messing with their iPhones and Blackberries? Ever tried to have a good conversation at a sports bar surrounded by lot of TVs showing a good game? Ever tried to have a conversation that is on too short a timetable…and each party is rushing to speak? All of these are recipes for shallow listening, which, unfortunately, sets up a dangerous spiral where information is missed, people are misunderstood, work becomes irrelevant or incomplete, and teams become frustrated and out of sync.
Ultimately, we all become like a 4-year-old, saying the same things over and over.
So, how about you? How quickly do you listen? What goes on in your head when people talk? What threatens your listening ability the most?