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OCI #24: Four Ways to Listen
Part 3 of a series on effective communication...asking good questions and applying skills for deeply attentive listening
This is the third post in a series on communicating in ways that create deeper connection and understanding. The first post describes four types of “talk” and provides background on the Core Communication model I’m drawing on. The second post is about identifying and exploring focal issues. This post explores a range of listening styles and ways of increasing our effectiveness as listeners.
When we listen in situations that are complicated or pressured, as is often the case during major organizational change, we tend to move into a zone where we are evaluating what is being said—seeking areas of agreement and disagreement—rather than working to understand. We jump into countering with our own perspective, leading to conflict and escalating stress. When we can shift into a different zone, listening to understand, we make sure that all important information is known and establish the groundwork for building rather than forcing agreement. The goals of effective listening are:
Respect (care about) the other person by hearing their story without distortion
Understand the other’s experience accurately
Discover useful information
Different situations call for different listening styles. I will describe four listening styles that generally correspond to the four talking styles:
These talking and listening styles affect the quality of information exchanged and the relationship with others in the conversation.
As you explore these, give some thought to the ones you use most frequently, and see if you can find examples of each in your own experience.
Style 1: Conventional Listening
We use this style for day-to-day interactions and business. We are relaxed, hearing chit-chat and stories and gathering task-related information. We may ask questions of a general nature or provide non-verbal cues to keep things moving. This type of listening often goes back and forth with the “small talk/shop talk” style of talking. Sometimes a talker’s conversation can remind us of a similar situation or topic, which prompts us to share our own experience. At times we may partially “check out,” exit the conversation, or send signals that we’re ready to move to a deeper level of exchange.
This type of listening contributes to a comfortable, companionable flow and makes sure routine matters are getting addressed. It’s not as effective in situations where the speaker is looking for a deeper response or has critical information that may not come up in routine conversations.
What are some of the ways you and your colleagues and friends let each other know you are listening? What does it feel like to be in this easy flow of conversation?
Style 2: Reactive Listening
In this style we are listening primarily for agreement or disagreement, and/or listening in a way that devalues or discounts the person speaking as a means of forcing agreement or change. There is a strong element of judging and attempting to counter, limit, or control conversation rather than to open up information and insights. It can be driven by fear, anxiety, defensiveness, and other motives.
When we are listening reactively we might judge, selectively filter out things we don’t want to hear, assume where someone is going, interrupt, ask questions that imply blame, and use nonverbal cues of aggression or disengaging/distancing.
As with the corresponding Control Talk style, this form of listening can heighten energy and stimulate action, but can also quickly lead to power struggles, escalating disagreements, and frustration. It tends to generate defensiveness and undermine trust.
Can you think of past conversations where it felt like the other person was waiting to pounce on you, use your words against you, or judge you for what you were saying? Have you found yourself listening to someone you don’t trust, and running their messages through a mental filter to find holes in their arguments or points of disagreement? In what situations are you most likely to experience reactive listening (either as a listener or a speaker)?
Style 3: Explorative Listening
This style of listening is characterized by open-ended questions designed to search for and increase information related to complex or unfamiliar issues. When we are considering facts, probing for information, examining causes, and generating possibilities, we are listening exploratively.
Explorative listening is useful for getting a conversation started, guiding it in useful ways, expanding information, deepening our understanding of an issue, seeking advice, and brainstorming collaboratively.
Asking Open Questions
One of the key elements of explorative listening is the use of questions that open up options and possibilities rather than limiting them. When a question begins with a “being verb” (is, are, do, had, could, etc.), it tends to stimulate a Yes/No response. This type of question has the impact of narrowing information, and fits better into the conventional listening style. To make questions more open, it’s helpful to start with the classic “newspaper reporter” question words—What, Where, When, How, and Who. These create the potential for gaining more information. You can combine this with the Information Wheel described in the previous post to systematically explore an issue:
Sensory Data: Who/what do (or did) you see/hear? Where? When?
Thoughts: What do/did you think?
Feelings: How do/did you feel?
Wants: What do/did you want for yourself? For others?
Actions: What do/did/will you do? Where? When? How?
Interestingly, you’ll notice that another of these words, “Why?,” is not on this list. That’s because it is more often used to demand justification or imply blame than it is to genuinely seek information—this puts it in the reactive listening category.
Best Uses of Explorative Listening
Open questions are particularly useful when working with people who talk too little—needing prompting to tell their story completely, or too much—needing structure and guidance to help them focus. In addition, these questions are helpful for facilitating brainstorming, decision-making, issue exploration, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.
All Questions Lead
The biggest issue with explorative listening is that all questions direct and influence conversation. Because they come from the listener’s frame of reference, not that of the respondent, they shape and lead the responses in subtle ways. They run the risk of disrupting a spontaneous flow, shifting the conversation away from critical information, introducing biases or interpretations, and shifting the focus from the talker to the listener’s agenda. They also have the potential to limit the information given to the information requested rather than allowing the speaker to roam more freely.
To protect against these risks, and the temptation to move into problem-solving mode (subtly using questions to guide the listener to an answer or solution), carefully consider when and whether to use questions, and work to listen intently rather than anticipating responses and thinking about next questions. Allow the speaker to lead you to key information.
Practice explorative listening by interviewing someone about an event or issue of importance to them. Ask open-ended questions and capture notes as you fill out your understanding of this topic. Then invite someone to do the same for you. Notice where their questions give you freedom to talk and where they have the effect of limiting or directing you.
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Style 4: Attentive Listening
This is the most powerful style of listening for important information and understanding the other person’s world. In this style, the listener encourages the talker to speak freely and fully about their experience without interference. The goal is to enhance the flow and quality of information, increase awareness, and uncover material that is essential to understanding and resolving issues.
Because this style is so powerful, I’ll take a little time to explain how it works and suggest some practice exercises to try. There are four core skills in this style of listening: attend, acknowledge, invite, and summarize. They are applied in a sequence, with questions used very infrequently.
Attending means giving the listener your full, careful attention. You should be relaxed, centered, and focused. Absorb several kinds of information:
Observe nonverbal communication—shifts in posture, facial expression, tension, and energy
Listen to the sounds of speech—tone, pitch, pace, and volume
Capture the content shared by the talker—listen for the elements that form the substance of an issue: sensory data, thoughts, feelings, wants, and actions
Practice this skill the next time you are in a conversation that goes beyond day-to-day activities and gets into a little deeper space. Which of these sources of information are easiest for you to pay attention to? The most difficult?
This second skill felt very strange to me when I first learned it, but it is actually quite effective. It involves speaking very brief condensed phrases, that accurately capture the essence of what the talker is experiencing, as a voice-over while the person is talking. You are staying a very short distance (micro-seconds) behind the talker, being careful not to be ahead of them and put words in their mouth or let your urges as a listener distract you.
You might say things like “big decision”…“frustrating”…“really desire that”…“hard work”…“colorful.”
The critically important part of this skill is to distill what you are hearing into words that reflect, connect with, and amplify the talker’s experience. When done effectively, this has the effect of showing respect for and acceptance of the talker, demonstrating that they have your complete attention, and energizing them. Miller describes this as operating like sonar, confirming that you are on target—as you watch their responses, small nonverbal signals like smiles, frowns, and nods will signal the accuracy and impact of your acknowledgement. When you are really tracking well, it is highly energizing for the talker.
It’s a little more challenging to find an opportunity to practice this skill, because it feels awkward at first. You might find it helpful to collaborate with a friend, taking turns in trying it. Set a timer for 5-7 minutes and ask the person to talk about an issue of importance to them. Try acknowledging as they speak. Then change roles. Do a couple rounds of this and see what you reactions you notice as each of you talks and listens.
This skill involves saying or doing something to encourage the talker to continue spontaneously telling you whatever they want—letting them choose where to go next. As with the “acknowledge” skill, this is generally done in a few words, but the timing is a little different. Rather than the ongoing voice-over, you use invitations when there is a pause, and also when you experience the urge to react, disagree, or advise. They can take several forms:
Gentle Command—“Continue.” “Say more.”
Wide Open Question— “What else?” “Anything more?”
Statement— “I’d like to hear more.” “This is hard for me to hear, but I’d like you to continue.”
Keep inviting—continue until the talker says they have nothing more to add. This may be two, three, or more times. At that point you know the story is complete for now, and you can begin asking questions or talking yourself. However, make sure you take a breath…sometimes the talker will say they have nothing more to add, and then pause, say “But,” and drop a real gem of information on you.
If you are a person who is prone to direct, take over for the talker, or move too quickly into questions, this skill is particularly important to practice.
Can you think of a time when you been on the receiving end of an invitation, and it’s given you the opening or the confidence to share more deeply? Look for opportunities to use this skill…it’s a pretty easy one to practice.
Summarizing involves condensing the key points you have heard and playing them back. This skill is used periodically in the attentive listening process. It’s a form of punctuation, used to check that you have fully understood what the talker has said. It demonstrates your commitment to receiving their message accurately, whether or not you agree with them. It’s useful to do this any time in the conversation when you have a particularly important issue at hand, think misunderstanding may be occurring, want to clarify perspectives or prioritize issues, or have had a stressful exchange. Interestingly, it’s generally not experienced as rude to interrupt for the purpose of summarizing. (Of course, it’s also legitimate for the talker to ask you what you have heard them say.)
It’s often helpful to start by saying something like, “Let me see if I’ve got what you just said.” Do your best to be complete without adding to (making inferences about) or subtracting from their message. If you can’t tell from their nonverbal response whether your summary was accurate, ask for confirmation or clarification. Repeat the process as necessary until both of you are satisfied that you heard the same message they sent. Avoid the temptation to skip summarizing by telling the talker “I know what you mean,” or “I understand what you’re saying.” Show them!
Do you know anyone who’s especially good at summarizing? It’s really lovely to hear someone play back to you what you’ve just said and recognize that you have been deeply heard. As you practice this skill, you’ll know you’re getting better when it takes you fewer tries to get to the point where the talker acknowledges the accuracy of your summary.
The Listening Cycle
In most cases you will not be using all the elements of attentive listening together or at one time, but will be bringing them into your conversations and meetings as appropriate. However, it can be helpful to look at how they work in the big picture and imagine them as operating in a full cycle. The Listening Cycle model helps you do this. As a person talks, you attend and periodically acknowledge. You can think of this as "home base." From time to time you step forward to invite, then move back into attending and acknowledging. Every once in a while you summarize. And, very sparingly, you ask open questions. Here is how this cycle is depicted in the Core Communication material.
When you are having a conversation with another person, pay attention to where you are in this cycle, and intentionally focus on using the first four listening skills. Take some time to reflect on the impact of your use of these skills on the level of connection with the other person, and on the quality of the information you gained.
Effective listening is critically important for understanding the perspectives of various stakeholders in an issue. Because situations vary in their need for complete understanding, you should use the listening styles flexibly. The more complex or unfamiliar the situation, the more useful it is to apply the attentive listening style and its associated skills.
As you increase your skill in listening, you will find several benefits:
You’ll get to the core of important issues more quickly, with less stress
The people you listen to will feel more energized and supported
You will earn the right to be heard
More comprehensive understanding will lead to better solutions
Trust and collaboration will increase.
In the next post I put the pieces together to describe how you can use these elements to systematically work through an issue.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections. See you in two weeks!
One of the fun things about the training program is that it includes two large floor mats—one for speaking, using the Information Wheel, and one for listening, using this diagram. As people practice, they move around on these mats to build awareness of where they are in the process. It feels a little like a dance.