Four Principles of Better Listening — and Better Leadership

murray nossel listening

“Are you able to listen?”

Before an important impromptu discussion, I will ask my co-workers this question. It’s not rhetorical. By asking it I acknowledge that what I’m about to say depends on their listening.

When they respond with a simple acknowledgment, “yes, I can listen,” for example, it lets me know that they will actually hear what I have to say. In such a busy world as we live in, small markers or boundaries like this can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of our communication. More importantly, they point to a fundamental principle that can transform how we experience communication altogether.

Principle One – The Reciprocal Relationship of Listening and Telling

When a liquid is poured into a bowl, the bowl gives the liquid its shape. Just so, listening gives telling its shape.

To acknowledge the reciprocal relationship of listening and telling means that we understand listening and telling to be mutually influential and of equal value. Now, this may seem glaringly obvious. “Of course, you can’t speak if someone isn’t listening, nor tell a story without an audience!” But just because someone sits across the desk or an audience fills seats in front of the stage doesn’t mean they are aware that how they listen shapes how you speak, and vice versa.

Everyone knows when someone isn’t fully present, which can lead to all types of reactions or interpretations (usually negative ones). In the fullest sense, listening is an act of valuing the intelligence of our counterpart. Paying heed to this principle, we check in with ourselves to ensure we are telegraphing that we are paying attention to our listener. They will be more at ease to speak.

Leaders who acknowledge that no telling can take place without listening, and that listener and teller play equal roles in the dynamic of listening and telling draw maximum value from conversations at work, whether report-outs or in team meetings. Listening is critical to being productive.

You may have to sit with this principle at first to fully appreciate its value because it’s not an action item but a process of sensitization. Your acumen about the communication process will grow. With that groundwork in place, how do we proceed to listen effectively and fully?

Principle Two – Identify Obstacles to Listening

Anyone who has tried to talk in a loud New York restaurant knows that the world presents many obstacles to listening. Exterior noise is an extreme example; inner turbulence is more subtle. However, both should be addressed and released in order to listen well. First, we have to identify our obstacles to listening, then we can release them.

External obstacles. Hearing, seeing and smelling can all present obstacles to listening. There may be a jackhammer outside, someone we’re talking to may wear an irritated expression, or there could be the smell of pastry wafting up from outside. Any of those can distract us from our focus.

Physical obstacles. These most often have to do with the body’s physical needs: hunger, needing to go to the bathroom, tiredness, physical discomfort or pain, sexual arousal, clothing that’s too tight or uncomfortable, rashes, feeling sick, or even having a bad hair day!

Internal obstacles. Internal obstacles include thoughts, memories, emotions, and feelings. You can have a variety of feelings in an hour, even within a minute, especially if you are upset or sad, or feel extreme happiness or joy. These can be obstacles to listening. Some of these obstacles are invisible to others and often to ourselves.

Psychological obstacles. Judgments of others and ourselves make it difficult to listen and be creative. “I am not good enough.” “He is better than I am.” “She doesn’t know how to tell a story.” Opinions or strong beliefs of agreement or disagreement can interfere if the listener likes or dislikes what the storyteller is saying. Opinions about religion, politics, or other topics, and interpretations of all kinds may be obstacles to listening.

Relational obstacles. The relationships we have with people often shape the way we listen to them. At work, there is a hierarchy, and that’s a natural and important structure. Bringing awareness to how the hierarchy affects our listening is crucial so that we don’t let it influence open listening.

Principle Three – Release Obstacles to Listening

Releasing obstacles is a gentle, light process. In fact, it entails nothing much more than to identify them with an attitude of practicality: they will get in the way, so we need to put them aside for the time being. We’re not trying to resolve them or psychologize ourselves, but rather make way to immerse ourselves in the communication at hand.

Of course, we can do something, here, too. If you’re hungry before a meeting and it’s getting in the way of your listening, get food. If you need to pee, go to the bathroom. If you’re angry at the person you’re about to speak with, find a sane and creative way to address the issue, so it’s no longer thwarting your attention. (We all know that almost all anger is based on miscommunication, and usually, everyone would be happier to not be angry and find a resolution.) But if you can’t, being aware of the anger can help in putting it aside.

Principle Four – Listen with your body

Our bodies are an instrument of listening. This means that the more we are grounded in our body, the more full and open our listening will be. So in principle four I suggest: take a breath, feel your feet on floor, or backside in your seat, and keep torso and neck naturally upright and relaxed. Be like a runner at the starting block: poise yourself, then, just listen. Allow the full presence of the other person into your awareness. Many common suggestions here are useful too, such as not thinking about what you’ll say next, and so forth.

Conclusion: Listening is a gift

Listening is a gift because it expresses value and respect. The person speaking to you will instinctively feel your attention when you listen fully, which arouses feelings of appreciation and openness. This can only produce better communication. Similarly, you will enjoy their attention as part of their response to the listening you offer them.

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