Effective Listening

Of course, there is no point in asking high-qualityLearning Discovery questions if these are not followed by listening of the same calibre.

I consider myself to be listening effectively if:

  • I really hear what is being said (i.e. I minimise filtering and interpretation)
  • The client feels the benefit of being heard (something like a sense of satisfaction or relief).

I regularly discuss the subject of effective listening in training classes, and participants quickly identify techniques that help. For example:

  • Use positive body language to encourage clients when they are speaking – eye contact, nods, etc.
  • Take notes and ask for clarifications – these are not only useful, they show the client that you are listening.
  • Use Playback (see the next sub-section).

A corresponding blacklist of behaviours to avoid is useful too:

  • Don’t think about your next question – focus on what is being said
  • Don’t think about the answer or solution proposal
  • Don’t interrupt the other person with suggestions
  • Don’t be anxious to close on a solution
  • Don’t make premature judgements – recognise and avoid being influenced by your own conditioning
  • Don’t project motives onto the client (they did this because …)

When I find myself doing any of the items on this blacklist, then I am probably making a Short Circuit.

A common mistake is to think of my next question when listening, and this is at the top of the blacklist. By letting my mind wander to my next question, I not only risk missing important information, I may also make my client feel that they are being subjected to an interrogation. Normal, agreeable conversation is littered with short pauses, allowing participants to consider what has been said and to formulate a response. If my questioning is too rapid and insufficiently linked to whatever my client has just said, then the dialog seems unnatural, and this will be felt, consciously or subconsciously.

The above checklist and blacklist both contain important points but, instead of treating them as a set of imperatives, I prefer an alternative approach: I use them as a reference for verifying that my listening is effective.

I suggest this because effective listening does not consist of a list of actions. The only action is to listen – that’s it. I give my attention to the speaker and I let my listening apparatus take over. When listening goes wrong, it is usually because something in my brain has woken up and interfered with the listening process – typically judgements and wandering thoughts.

Hence, the skill of effective listening depends on a good level of self-awareness: that is, the ability to simultaneously be present with my client, listening to what they are saying and, at the same time, being conscious of my own quality of listening. In this state, I quickly notice when I diverge from the ‘do’s and don’ts’ checklists, above, and I take the necessary corrective action.

If I think of the blacklist items as being similar to the alarm indicators on a car dashboard – e.g. for an empty fuel tank or failing brakes – then the checklist points are more like the engine and road speed indicators: I try to keep them at a comfortable level. I find that this approach allows me to behave naturally while still noticing my mistakes and using them to gradually improve my performance.