Leaders and managers are often encouraged to practice ‘active listening’ in order to build their emotional intelligence, get a greater understanding the people they are working with and be better at leading and managing them.
It’s a key part of coaching, too, which is something else leaders and managers are being encouraged to do.
The thing is, what does ‘active listening’ really mean?
Putting your phone away and really paying attention to the other person?
Leaning forward and putting on a serious “I am really concentrating” face?
Getting up from your desk and sitting next to them on a sofa, to show you are equals in the conversation?
Making reassuring “ah-ha”s and “hmmm”s every now and then to show you are still awake, er, I mean, listening?
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who clearly thought it was ALL of these things but that it didn’t actually include listening to what you were saying? Yeah, right. They’ve obviously been ‘on the course’ but not really understood what they were being taught. They’ve learnt the steps but they haven’t got the dance.
You see, we know when we are being ignored, when the person we are talking to has their mind elsewhere. We know when we have not been heard because we FEEL it.
When I did my coach training, I found out that active listening came naturally to me. It was just something that I did. OK, there have been times when I have been distracted and overwhelmed and NOT been listening, just like everyone from time to time. But in normal circumstances, it is how I listen.
The reason I do this, however, is because I used to be a product manager.
“What’s that got to do with it?” I hear you ask, “this is about people, isn’t it?”
Let me explain. A key part of developing a new product is to capture the requirements of your prospective customers, to understand what their needs are and how they want them met. Now, if you read the latest literature, like The Lean Startup, you’ll find out that what you have to do is ‘get out of the building’ and ask them. Simple, right?
Well, no. You see, people are really bad at telling you what they want. Sometimes they don’t know, sometimes they don’t know how to explain it and sometimes they don’t want to admit what their need really is. If you took what they said at face value and produced a product that faithfully met what they told you, no-one would buy it.
When you listen to people, you have to figure out what they are REALLY saying. When they say they need a solution to problem A, you have to ask yourself “what problem are they really talking about? What is the problem behind this problem? And the one behind that?”.
Now, you can’t just ask them “No, I mean, what’s the real problem, the one behind that” because, firstly, they will be offended and may well chuck you out and secondly, they don’t know. So you have to tease it out them with some questions.
And that’s where the active listening comes in. You really pay attention to what they say and how they say it, you read between the lines.
“Hmm, they were hesitant about that, they seemed to be nervous about saying that.”. “That was said a bit too quickly, a bit glibly, is that really what they think or are they just repeating what someone else has told them?” “He was very dismissive of that person’s opinion, what’s going on there?” and so on.
Invariably, what was initially presented as ‘the problem’ that the customer wanted solved wasn’t the real problem. Sometimes, the real problem was totally different and something we couldn’t solve anyway.
So that’s what active listening means to me. Seeking to answer the questions “What’s going on here?; what’s the real story?; what’s this person really wanting to say?; what’s the truth here?”
it’s not that people are liars (although occasionally that’s the case). It’s that we frequently say one thing when we mean another. Active listening is about getting to what exactly is meant. Getting past what is said, getting beneath the superficial.
Some of it is logical and analytic, some of it is observation and some of it just down to gut reaction and intuition. For me, I can feel when something is not right, when it doesn’t ‘ring true’ and it’s not the full story. Then I am like a dog with a bone, I won’t let go until I have got to the bottom of it.
So start practicing active listening. Listen closely to what people are saying and get curious. Ask questions to deepen your understanding, to check facts, to get clarification. And listen to your intuition.
The payoff is that you will start to understand people and their needs much better and then you will be able to lead them better too.