Listening, deeply listening, is probably much harder than you think. This is because real listening is not about hearing what is spoken – it is about understanding the speaker. It is about picking up was isn’t said, as well as what is.

One of my favourite statistics is that 93% of people think they are above-average drivers. I wonder if their self-assessment of how well they listen is much better… In Steven Sample’s book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, he includes both of these areas when he suggests that the average person suffers from three delusions: 1) that s/he is a good driver, 2) that s/he has a good sense of humour and 3) that s/he is a good listener. From my own observation, it seems that few people are anywhere near reaching their potential in terms of how well they listen. The reason, I believe, is that to listen fully we also have to quiet the voice in our head, and that is not so easy.

Even when only two people are involved, there will nearly always be three conversations taking place: the obvious, audible, external one, between the two parties, and the two silent, internal ones taking place in each of their heads. Often, we listen to the other person only until something they say triggers a thought, at which point our self-talk kicks in as we mentally prepare what we will say next. In other words, conversations actually have three elements:

  • Listening.

  • Preparing to speak.

  • Speaking.

Many people I’ve discussed this with, both in one-on-one coaching and workshop environments, have confirmed that preparing to speak consumes a significant proportion of their attention. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, and there are important issues at stake, such as how others are likely to react to our ideas, whether they will create a good impression of our capabilities and how to phrase them for greatest impact. But let’s be clear: if you are framing a response when the other is speaking, you are not listening!

This article describes some of the factors that make listening such a powerful leadership behaviour, as well as some simple principles that will help you to listen more effectively.

Read the Article: Here’s How Great Leaders Listen to and Understand Their Team

My Advice

I like to think of empathy as the lifeblood of listening: the essential ingredient for dealing with people effectively in any setting. Empathetic listening goes much deeper than what is normally referred to as “active listening”, because it requires that we seek to understand not only the content and context, but also the emotions of the speaker. It is not enough to simply attempt to put yourself in another’s shoes – a common way for people to think about empathy – because this will tell you only how you might feel under the same conditions. The question that must be addressed is how the situation makes the other person feel.

To address this challenge, the unexpected capability required turns out to be our imagination. While it is clearly impossible for any of us to completely know or understand what anyone else is experiencing, we can strive to imagine what something might be like, or feel, for another. When we intuit what they may be feeling, a deeper level of connection with them is created which can transform both our impact and the quality of our overall relationships.

The key enablers to this kind of empathetic listing are focused, non-judgmental, attention and the power of silence… When we place this quality of quiet attention on another person and hold it there, putting aside things like ego, judgement, pre-existing views, ideas, and agendas, it conveys to them that they are important and cared for. Doing so also requires that we drop the pressure on ourselves to have the smartest, or fastest, response and to listen with our ears, eyes and heart. I suggest two quick mental checks before even engaging in conversation, which will help you to get into a listening mode:

  • Deliberately set your intention to fully understand the other person.

  • Literally stop anything else you may be doing and consciously direct your full psychological presence towards them in the form of your undivided attention.

If you do this well, it is incredible how great an impact it can create. I have had experiences that have stayed with me for almost 40 years for no other reason. When we receive this type of empathetic listening, it truly is a gift.