The Secret to Listening Well
The secret to listening well is hard work, which is why so many of us struggle to do it well.
It sounds simple, but I am sure you have had disappointing experiences with someone who asks you a question but who then seems unwilling or unable to listen to your answer.
Asking a question merely starts the transaction. Listening properly to the answer completes the transaction.
Active Listening and Finding the Meaning Behind the Utterance
Active Listening means we are more than just alert to what we are hearing because an exceptional trainer must be able to listen and then interpret what they hear.
The words people say do not always tally with what they mean and it is frequently the little comments about themselves or their situation that reveal their true underlying feelings and attitudes.
For instance, you may want to ask each of your students to deliver or demonstrate something to the whole class.
You choose a student to step forward. (In reality, I would always ask for a volunteer rather than choose a student, so as not to put undue pressure on anyone in particular.)
The student replies:
‘Can I do it later?’
What might that mean?
It could mean many things. Attentive listening would take it at face value and maybe agree to let the student do it later. Active Listening goes a little further.
What could the student really be saying?
- We could have a shy or nervous student who wants to do the best job and is simply not quite ready and forcing them to deliver too soon could cause them embarrassment. They have every intention of doing the task, but not straight away.
Therefore pressuring them too soon could set them up for a fall which could impact negatively on their further engagement in the training.
- Maybe later is not now!
The student thinks they might be able to put this off and get out of doing it altogether.
In which case it might be worth leaning on them a little bit to get it out of the way.
Their ego is not involved in this instance and they are not particularly worried about making a mistake. They would rather just get out of doing it at all!
- Maybe they have been looking out of the window for the last 10 minutes and have no idea what they should be doing.
In this case, forcing them to get up will reveal that they have not been paying attention, will make them look bad in front of everyone and take them back to school when they get into trouble for not being properly attentive.
And for most of us, remembering how we were treated in school, is not a positive memory.
- Maybe you have not explained the task very clearly and the student is too shy or polite to say so and is hoping that someone else understands better and they can catch on by watching someone else first.
- Maybe the student simply does not see the point of the exercise and by asking to go later they are expressing their lack of engagement in the task.
Listening Means Responding to the Sub-Text
My message is, many innocent and simple statements could have a deeper sub-text and we need to be able to respond to the sub-text, not just to the words we are hearing.
My time spent teaching public speaking to school children has taught me, more than anything else, the importance of really listening carefully.
An off-hand or flippant comment can easily offend.
And when a 15-year-old decides to be offended, there is rarely a quick way back!
A full day with twenty-five 15-year-olds – sometimes in quite challenging environments – teaches you to be very sensitive to signs and statements that don’t always mean what is being said.
‘I can’t be bothered’ sometimes means ‘I am scared’.
‘I can’t think of anything to talk about’ means ‘I don’t think I am worth listening to’.
‘This is a waste of time’ means ‘Please help me see how this is going to help me!’.
Often I would explain to teachers that have seen me run the programme several times, that the reason I stick with the same format, give the same examples and tell the same stories is not because I desperately lack creativity, it is so that I can keep my full concentration on the reactions and responses of the twenty-five young people in front of me.
Be in the Room 100%
If I know I have a challenging session ahead, I do not want to be thinking about what comes next on my training session plan, I need to be in the room 100% with the antenna up and reading the signals.
Sometimes one of the students makes a reference that I don’t understand, which the group finds hilarious.
Am I missing something? What does that mean?
Is it some cultural reference that I am not supposed to understand?
Is it about me?
Is it an off-colour joke?
Should I let it go?
Is it a joke at another student’s expense?
Is it offensive?
Can I tell which student is targeted?
Is that student happy to be in on the joke or are they a victim of the joke?
Is this banter or bullying?
I need to be very alert to what is being said as well as what might be happening under the surface because if the person at the wrong end of the joke is already unsure about taking part, I don’t want them to withdraw completely.
As they prepare their speeches I need to remember that a topic that seems small and trivial to me may be very important to a 15-year-old and I need to listen to their reasons.
The Secret to Listening Well Means Listening to the Details
The secret to listening well means listening to the details. I may be hearing details or hints of what is going on in their lives. Today might be the day that a very quiet child finally stands up and speaks out about something important to them, or it may be yet another day when one of the loud ones tries to take centre stage. Now I need to wonder whether that loud child is loud because they are confident or whether they are loud to mask a lack of confidence. It is not always immediately obvious.
I hope you appreciate that the reason I have chosen to give many examples of situations with school children is that it is quite a testing environment. Although less than 10% of my professional time has been spent with young students, most of the strongest and, at times, brutal lessons about what does and does not work in a training room have been forged in the schoolroom furnace. Most of the principles and techniques on engagement and communication will be tested to breaking point with a group of 15-year-olds. If they work with them, they will probably work everywhere!
Therefore the secret to listening well, whether in a meeting, running training or responding to questions at the end of a presentation is :
Be aware that there may be a subtext under what is being said.