Listening to the Answers

My clients know that I have a special fondness for the importance of a leader slowing down to ask important questions rather than just talk. When I talk to other people who do the kind of work I do, I find that many also see the value in coaching their clients to ask good questions.

Asking questions is essential, and is only as good as our willingness to listen to the answers. I was reminded of this twice yesterday:

  1. A team I’m working with got into a heated discussion. Everyone felt like they had to get their opinions in. They were interrupting each other, talking over each other, and focused on what they’d say nex to defend their positions. Nobody asked any questions, and nobody was listening.
  2. A woman I’ve never met called yesterday to seemingly pick my brain about what I do (she was considering a similar career path). In a half hour “conversation” (this isn’t the right term), she asked me one question – and cut me off when I attempted to answer it. She talked about herself the entire time.

So how do you learn to listen?

Like a 12-step program, our listening – or not – must become a conscious choice, a habit. And it needs to be practiced and ingrained. For starters, consider doing the following:

  1. Observe: Although it sounds odd, observe yourself in conversation. How often do you pause for someone else to speak?
  2. Stop talking: I know it sounds obvious. But the first step in listening is to shut up.
  3. Don’t interrupt: Also obvious, but most of us do this unconsciously.
  4. Turn toward the person who is speaking and look them in the eye: We tend to listen on autopilot, not realizing the effect our body language may have on stifling a conversation.
  5. Stop the quacking: You know, that incessant voice in your head that wanders off to what you’ll have for lunch or the ugly tie the person you’re speaking with is wearing?
  6. Turn off or at least ignore the buzzing, whining, ringing cell phone. When you pay attention to your phone in the middle of a conversation, many will believe you’ve made the choice that the phone is more important than they are.

The above steps are just plain courtesies. They are obvious, but often hard to put into action. They show respect for the person you are speaking to. Learning to do these and making them habit are key. Find someone to help you by observing you and providing feedback.

Next post – part II – will be about going beyond listening – for those really important conversations.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

3 comments on “Listening to the Answers

  1. Great post, again, MJ. Listening is so important, and people can tell when we’re listening and when we’re not. I struggle with interuppting when I am excited about something… any suggestions? I often realize what I am doing and apologize, but wish I could be more mindful about listening completely before I respond.

  2. Hi Becky,

    I always say that learning to listen better is a 12-step program and that awareness is the first step (welcome to better listener’s anonymous).

    One thing to remember is to quiet your mind, and the chatter inside. If you are really listening, you aren’t thinking about what you will say next.

    A couple of things you can do in addition:

    1. When you feel your adrenaline pumping and those words bubbling up to your lips, stop, take a deep breath all the way into your abdomen. This will slow you down. It also allows the impulse to talk to reach your forebrain (the “rational thinking” part of your brain), so your response can be more thoughtful.

    2. For some people, writing down on a piece of paper what they would have otherwise said seems to help. This requires you to have pen and paper handy. I’ve had clients use this technique in meetings. They find that what they had to say wasn’t that important after all (or sometimes would have been damaging to the flow of conversation).

    Finally, don’t get discouraged. If interrupting others has been a lifelong habit, it will take awhile to reverse it. Best wishes!

  3. Thanks, Mary Jo. I am going to make note of your suggestions and try them out soon.

Comments are closed.