We’re taught a lot of things in our lifetime. Most of them in our formative little years. We’re told to listen. We’re rarely told how to listen.
Disclaimer: Tim Walsh is the Founder of SHIFT Digital Agency. He is also writing this here paragraph in the third person. He is not a qualified anything, although he does have a degree in Television Technology & Production that he uses not-at-all in his role as a digital marketer. But most importantly Tim Walsh, the person, has derived valuable experience from the below and feels it worth sharing with at least one person [thank you in advance for the LinkedIn InMail invite to connect and find me 30 daily agency appointments].
I used to be a great listener. Especially as a sharp young agency guy. It took a minute but then I knew exactly when not to talk. I could let clients, vendors, bosses, colleagues get all of their words out. When they were absolutely done, I would give them all of my genius words. I didn’t interrupt at all. I was a great listener.
Then I began observing as the same happened to me. As I worked my way up and led teams and departments and business units. I observed as it happened, at some level in most meetings that I was in. It was wholesale and contagious. Listening to respond is not even remotely the same as listening to understand.
Listening to respond is paying enough attention to the context and timing of what someone is saying so that you know when you can start talking – talking comprised of thoughts, ideas, and opinions already formed and unaffected by what the other person has just shared.
Seriously, I was really good at delivering a blistering spiel that would have the vast majority of the room nodding in agreement. The vast majority who were listening intently, with laptops open [multi-tasking is admirable], smartphones face up on the table in front of them [you know, in case of an emergency]. The only person looking at all miffed? Often the most important person in the room. No biggie.
The clincher for me, and it came quickly, was that I hate wasting time. I can’t stand the idea of going through the motions, or worse, other people going through the motions for me. As a digital agency exec, it was very normal for me to be pitching multiple times a week and also to be pitched to multiple times a week. The idea that much of this could incorporate energy wasted, or worse again, energy not respected, was unacceptable to me.
I began Googling up on the art of Active Listening – a practiced and concerted effort to ingest and digest information, and respond appropriately. I even gave a short presentation on it to our agency about a decade ago. It was important.
We’re taught a lot of things in our lifetime. Most of them in our formative little years. We’re told to listen. We’re rarely told how to listen. Yet 99% [actual statistic that I just made up] of our problems stem from issues rooted in communication.
For me, listening, in most situations, starts as a mark of respect. Not some revered, earned respect. Just a basic human respect. Respect for the person who is putting energy and thought in sharing something with you. If not, you’re simply telling them that there are things that matter more to you in that moment. That respect is required from everyone in the room, in my opinion. It has always struck me as bizarre that if one person appears to be engaged then six others can settle into their laptops. It’s cool, so-and-so’s got it!
Would you be willing to tell somebody [a client, a vendor, a colleague, a boss] that to their face? There are other things that matter more to you – like the potential of your phone ringing? It’s what you might be saying with your body language and your out-of-context conversational response.
In this Covid era, the open laptop on the conference table [aside from the presenter] might be the turned off camera or the eating a bowl of Rice Krispies with your mic muted. The response that addresses the one thing you know a ton about from 10 minutes ago, but that ignores the most important stuff from the last 9 is unaffected by environment. Listening is an active sport.
It’s not hard. We’re people at home, we’re people at work, we’re people at home at work. We sometimes respond differently in professional situations vs personal situations, but the feelings don’t differ and the internal judgments we make based on those feelings don’t differ. Still people.
And at the end of the day
BEING LISTENED TO MAKES US FEEL GOOD AND VALID.
NOT BEING LISTENED TO MAKES US FEEL CRAP AND NOT VALID.
Listening is a way of valuing each other. When we value each other then . . . well, there’s tremendous upside potential for everyone. It’s also, arguably, the right thing to do, which is . . . er . . . a bonus, right?
Not going to lie, I still have the potential to get lost in my own ego-smashed brain during any conversation, but more often than not, I find myself able to spot the light and find my way back to trying to honor the conversation and the person or people partaking [much better at this in professional vs personal situations that require listening]. It takes practice, ongoing. I suspect that journeying from a rubbish listener to a less rubbish listener has also had an impact on the relationships I get to enjoy and the growth of SHIFT Digital Agency. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility.
Here are some solid tips from MIT [the actual college, not just my name backwards] that can hopefully be of use to anyone else looking to up their Listening game. If you only hold on to the first tip it will serve you and others well.
Choose to listen (or not): If you cannot listen now but are willing, set a time for later.
Find a good space: Choose a place to talk without distractions.
Take the time: Let the other person tell their story.
Respond (vs. react): Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
Show interest: Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your email.
“Hear” as well as listen: It is normal to miss some words or not know their meaning. Ask: “Could you say that again?” “Could you explain.?”
Ask questions: Ask for more information, for what happened. Ask if you understand: “Are you saying that … ?”
Clarify/Paraphrase: Not everyone knows exactly what they mean to say. Check your understanding. For example, “It sounds like what you are saying is____. Is that right?”
Be patient: It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
Listen for content and emotion: both carry the meaning at hand. It’s OK sometimes to say, “How are you doing with all this?”
Learn: Listen for their perspective/their view. Listen for their experience. Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
Follow their lead: See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
Be kind: Listen with heart as well as with mind.