Total Listening

Consider this scenario: your friend is telling you a story, and suddenly you think of something brilliant to add to the conversation, maybe a great story of your own. You start chasing that idea in your mind and thinking what you’ll say and how you’ll say it, and before you know it, you’re hardly listening at all.  When your friend finally finishes, or even pauses, in you plunge with your witty/relevant/meaningful remark.

I do this a lot.

Making assumptions, interrupting with my own example, and focusing on what I’ll say next come quite naturally to me.

As a coach, my job is to do the opposite. I need to listen intently, keep an open mind and focus solely on the other person. It’s an area I’m growing in, and I’m constantly surprised by the results. I listen intently to every word. Instead of assuming I know what’s going on, I ask. The answers are rarely what I expect. Maybe the challenge holding someone back is their fear of rejection. Maybe they don’t want to fail. Maybe it’s just too many video games. Regardless, I find that bringing a childlike curiosity into the conversation and quieting the internal biases allows us, together, to uncover what’s really going on.

This incredible privilege—getting into the trenches with the Talent I coach and offering my undivided attention—is shifting my communication outside work as well. Transformative is the best word to describe this change, but don’t assume it’s easy.

Finding contexts when total listening can occur takes discipline, energy, and being willing to create new habits instead of falling into old patterns of interrupting and cutting someone off. It’s easy to let my guard down at the end of the day around the dinner table and not fully engage with my husband’s story about his PhD research or my 2 year old’s repeated, “Mommy, look, what’s that?”

Tuning them out in these family moments means missing opportunities for showing love, offering helpful feedback, or even sharing a good laugh when listening to our daughter. This engagement takes energy, discipline and a special level of discernment. For instance, when I’m at the grocery store with two active, hungry kids, it’s not wise to devote every ounce of attention to the cashier. One kid might escape and climb up a restocking ladder (not that this has happened before, twice).

Yet, when I’m on my own, I can take a moment to ask this person how their day is going and genuinely listen for the answer instead of the near-robotic and mindless exchange of pleasantries. The simple question, “How are you?” followed by a pause and an expectant look at the other person, opens a window and creates a space for them to feel cared about and valued.

I recently put this question to a cashier at Walgreens and she told me it was her first day back after going through a major health issue, and that I was the first person to notice. She said I made her day. The truth is, I hadn’t been to this Walgreens in 6 months and had no idea who she was. But the way I asked the question made her feel so valued, she simply assumed I was a regular customer who had missed her while she was gone.

This is where the magic happens. A question. A pause. Total listening.

Each of us has the power to care for another human being by paying attention to them. How can you use this today to transform your own leadership? How can you use this most ancient of practices to care for those around you? How can this be a gateway to creating an edifying work environment where people feel appreciated?

Tough as it to fully engage, I don’t want to be known for the alternative. Nodding, fake smiling and being mentally distracted all send the message that you’re not worth my full attention.

It’s tempting to think no one will notice if I check out a little during the conversation, but if I can tell when someone’s checked out (and I can tell!), I imagine folks can tell when I do the same.

When you have the opportunity, give the gift of total listening. It will cost you mental energy and it will cost you time. But can you think of many better ways to invest these precious resources?

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