Many of us think we are listening when we are not. Sometimes we just aren’t talking.
Maybe we’re letting the speaker vent, while we listen to our thoughts:
- “What am I going to say?”
- “Am I a bad person?”
- “This person’s got a problem!”
- “Why is this directed at me?”
- “What’s for lunch?”
We are especially quick to cut off communication when we are uncomfortable. Yet the best way to get more comfortable with challenging conversations is to practice having them.
Prepare for the Communication
Preparing for difficult conversations isn’t about scripting your responses. Remember the first time you tried that when asking someone out on a date or a boss for a raise? If they didn’t follow your script, you lost your train of thought. You might have given up. If you were lucky, the other person met you half way and everything worked out.
Life isn’t scripted, which can bring us wonderful surprises we want. But some surprises throw us into panic.
You can prepare yourself for difficult conversations by keeping yourself grounded in what matters most in your relationships, whether it’s your relationship with the cleaning person or the Chief Executive Officer:
- Forgive yourself for sometimes getting weird about relationships and making conflicts about more than they are. We all do that.
- Acknowledge yourself for any action you take to improve, including the choice to continue reading this post.
- Forgive the world for having and creating conflicts. You become stronger and wiser with each one you attempt to resolve.
- Free any emotions you’ve been suppressing. They are meant to be felt, leave what nourishes you, and move on.
- Clear your mind of all the chatter and focus on making this situation better.
- Assume you know nothing about anything. The beginner’s mind opens you to the most solutions.
- Practice listening with your third ear (your heart) to the hurts and concerns people close to you share. Help them take the next step to heal them. With practice, it will become easier to listen for these golden nuggets and know what to do next.
Actively Listen Even When You Disagree
Usually when we listen to someone speak, we listen for something about a topic we recognize. Then, we find something we know or believe about the same topic, and we decide whether it aligns with what we think about it. If it doesn’t, we might reject it and make a judgment about the person speaking. We might leave or interrupt the conversation, dismissing the speaker and anyone still listening to them. That could work if you aren’t likely to encounter these people again. It certainly doesn’t work when the speaker you are tuning out is an employee, even if it’s one whose employment you could easily terminate.
Employment is a mutually beneficial partnership in which you pursue compatible goals. Active listening can help you determine what the speaker’s goals are. It also keeps you engaged in the discussion, even when you temporarily tune out.
- Put your phone away
- Let others do more of the talking
- Allow yourself to be uncomfortable
- Ask questions to clarify your understanding, but not to challenge the speaker
- Repeat or summarize portions of what was said to make sure you got it right
- Take brief notes if you need to
- Help them determine the next step
- If possible, don’t leave the speaker with nothing more than an opportunity to vent
As a listener, your goal is to let them know you heard them or when you can give them the appropriate attention. Listening is an act of generosity. It is also one of the best sources of information on others’ experiences. When your employees are talking, you can get valuable details that help you avoid lost clients, employee injuries, and lawsuits.
Listen for What’s Not Being Said, Too
When I started practicing law, I was surprised by how many lawyers conducted depositions from a standard list of questions. They rattled off each question, scribbled notes, and rarely looked up at the witnesses, often preventing them from getting key insight. When someone isn’t communicating as you expect, you can discern intent and fill in communication gaps just by watching them.
This might seem like a lot to do, but don’t worry. Your brain is already doing it. The difference is that you will focus your brain on the most valuable data. You don’t need to be an expert in facial expressions or body language because you can also use active listening to fill communication gaps. You might simply observe that the speaker is nervous because they aren’t used to speaking up, or you could acknowledge what you think you’re seeing:
- “You seem very upset right now. Do you need a moment to gather your thoughts?”
- “Am I making you nervous? Would you like to sit down?”
- “I can see this is challenging for you to talk about. How can I help?”
Again, your goal is to let them know you heard them and that you care. You might not care about the topic, but at the very least, you need to care about them as an employee and human being. If you can’t do that, you are on the wrong career path.
Listen for the Hurts You Can Heal
You will not be able to heal every hurt you want to for every person you want to. No one expects you to erase the traumatic impact of horrors such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade or the Holocaust. Domestic violence, rape, or the other tragedies your employees have experienced cannot be willed away. But you can listen for what they are trying to communicate, even when the words come out in fragmented sentences or poor grammar.
Listen for the person behind the chatter, even when it is loud or when their words hurt. Sometimes they need to free the emotions before they can clear their minds and start working toward resolution.
Assume you know nothing about the speaker or the topic. Use your beginner’s mind to explore the situation anew. What does the employee want from the interaction? What hints are they dropping? How can you help them resolve the issue(s) or at least take the next step toward resolution?
Listen for the Common Ground on Which to Build
When listening to someone we don’t like or who seems different from us, we tend to dismiss them. We think it will be easier for them to just go away. This might protect us from change, but it also limits our growth. Instead, explore the differences with a sense of wonder and excitement for something new. Consider:
- Where do their beliefs come from?
- Does it matter that they are different from yours or come from other sources?
- Do they make your beliefs any less valuable?
- What do your belief systems have in common?
- Where are they different, yet compatible?
Not even your best friend or spouse agrees with you on everything. You don’t have to change your beliefs to respect someone else’s beliefs.
A Call to Action for Employers
As employers, we have to do better. We have some important discussions to lead about:
- Diversifying workforces
- Eliminating inequities
- Including all employees in the decisions that affect them
- Preventing sexual misconduct at work
- Protecting our workplaces from violence