Listening is one of those behaviors that most people take for granted. Until, that is, they miss something very important that impacts their job and career. So when interviewing for a developmental client, I inevitably ask about my client’s listening skills. Nearly always the first response is that the client is a “good listener.” Then I start chunking the listening competency, ultimately revealing the client’s listening failures.
The chunks start with a question about “parroting,” then to paraphrase, summary, and on to implication questions including the client’s competency and effective use of questions surrounding the messages from senders. Smart interviewees understand that I’m deconstructing the listening competency and quickly get to the point: “I guess he’s not as good a listener as I thought,” the interviewee responds. Whatever the original developmental objective, listening is typically a piece of the problem. Listening–and communicating–across organizational disciplines is fraught with difficulty. It’s about differing language, priorities, values and even attitudes.
“My boss–or my colleague–won’t listen to me” is only one of the listening problems. Although it’s rare to see much about effective listening on the web, my single post on the subject, Listening with minimal encouragers–with nearly 20,000 viewers–is still going strong. Listening problems in organizations never seem to go away. Part of the problem is most folk still frame listening through the lens of attention. So they emphasize “pay attention and listen harder.” That, however, won’t significantly improve your listening.
Being effectively responsive to messages in any format is first and foremost all about questioning, especially within the organization. That implies that our knee jerk response to the messages we receive within interpersonal conversations or scripted media is neither reading closely nor listening more attentively. The questioning may be verbalized orally or merely internal and silent, but effective listeners are invariably questioning.
Although written messages are infamous for misunderstanding, face-to-face conversations are still more complex. We’ve been taught to listen for the big ideas and pay attention to the words and meanings, but that’s only part of the issue. Effective listeners also question the larger conversational context, the immediate setting, audience relationship, emotional tone, body movement, the gestures, eye gaze, tone and inflection as well as the words. In short, effective listeners are parallel processors who question what they both see and hear within the conversational package.
Can you question all of these factors at one time? Of course not. But as you question what you’re seeing and hearing, you’ll begin to notice just a few factors in each conversation that stick out. Usually those are the factors on which to focus your questioning and analysis. This might include context issues, for example, as obvious as, “why is Joe interrupting repeatedly?” Or, “why is the leader getting ‘defensive’ about that set of questions?” Sometimes the more important question might even be, “why don’t I have better insights into this seemingly politicized issue? How did I miss out on what’s evidently going on here?”
Invariably, there are only a handful of questions that apply to nearly all business settings:
- What’s the meaning of this conversation? What’s being said and what’s the real subtext?
- What are the relevant context, hierarchy, political, relationships, emotions, tone, body language and gesture I need to focus upon and analyze? Who are the obvious players here, and why are others saying nothing?
- What are the relevant “undiscussables?” What’s not being messaged, but would be extremely useful to know and understand?
- What’s the impact of the person’s messaging upon the context, conversation and myself?
- What does he expect me to do about what he’s saying–and what am I really going to do about it?
- What are the messages my listening is sending to the speaker and what adjustments do I need to make about those messages—if possible?
You’re not always going to be comfortable asking these questions orally in every setting. But failure to question can impact your job, sometimes seriously.
Remember that the conclusions you draw if you don’t ask a question out loud may be off base—far off base. I inevitably assume that my assessment of what’s being said—if I don’t verbalize my question to the other—has a greater potential for being wrong than right. It’s smart to distrust your judgments about the other person and what he or she is meaning. My friends, as well as my clients, tend to expect that I’ll call back after sleeping on a conversation to once more clarify a conversation’s meaning.
If you build a social contract—an agreement with the person–that you can ask questions about what’s being said, and do it early on and regularly—you’ll find it possible to ask nearly all these questions. Of course, you’ll need to regularly renegotiate the contract. If the person is a superior, you’ll want to find out whether he’s OK with questions in public or would prefer them in private. Eventually, even the most reticent will agree to public questioning of significant issues.
FYI: Systematic research in communications, psych, anthropology, and sociology underlies all these listening questions. But I decided that enough was probably enough. Still I’ll drop one overarching piece of research directly related to listening into this blog: Misunderstanding is more prevalent and widespread than understanding within the organizational communication package. Organizational misunderstanding can be tied as much to contextual politics and body gesture as to the meaning of words. The politically astute understand that. They recognize that nearly all conversation has political overtones that must be factored into their listening.