Listening Is Not About Trying Harder

More and more as managers and professionals go up the ladder and
gain more responsibility, they focus on listening.  A case in point that
I referred to in a previous blog is Teresa
Taylor, COO of Quest.  Taylor admitted that very often, rather than
listen, she was formulating ideas in her head.  But as she gained more
responsibilities, she had to get things done through other people.  And
that meant influencing people.  And as she said, listening is key to
influencing people.  In other words, if you don’t understand another’s
attitudes, priorities and commitments, you’re not going to be able to
influence them.  Listening, then, is a primary means for understanding
another person.

So how do you go about becoming a better listener?  Many people
decide to “try harder” at listening.  But “trying harder” will bring
little positive results.  Instead, effective listening is a distinct
package of learnable skills and tools. 

Easily, the most effective tool for listening is what I call an
“implication response.”  The implication response is a particular form
of listening.  It is a unique means of insuring that you’ve really
understood what the other person–boss, colleague or subordinate–is
actually saying and that you’re really listening.  Of course, you can
respond with, “I hear you, ” or “OK. I get it,” or “I understand,” or
something to the effect that “that makes sense to me.”  You can even
clarify what the person has said, but nothing works as well, or is as
accurate and precise as the implication response.

Since the skill assumes interaction and requires serious thought for
the listener, I reserve it for important matters.  If the other person
is talking about a task or relationship of importance, I’ll use it as a
means of double-checking my listening and understanding.  Notice
specifically, that an implication response goes beyond parroting or
paraphrasing.  In the implication response, the recipient of a
communication responds by describing what he or she is going to do, what is going to happen as a result of communication from another person.

An implication response includes two steps: a brief paraphrase, and a
thoughtful statement of implications which inevitably gets a response
of yes or no from the talker.

Let’s suppose you’ve worked up a proposal for a small process change
in department.  You’re discussing the matter with Jane, who’s very close
to your boss, and she gives you a direct message, telling you that
you’re going to need the boss’s support to go forward in the process
change.  Since this is an important matter for you, you engage Jane
in implication responses.

First, the paraphrase, often ending with a slight question. 
“So, Jane, I’ll have to get the boss’s support–even for a small
process change like this one?”

Jane nods her head affirmatively, and you go on with the implication response
“OK.  Based on what you’re telling me, that means two or three things: 
First, I’ve probably got to redo my proposal.  Second, I’ve got to
justify my recommendation with a fair amount of detail.  And, third,
I’ve got to really sell these ideas to my boss, or I may as well stop
what I’m doing right now.  Is that what you’re saying?”

You can see that by laying out the implications of Jane’s
information, you let her decide whether or not you’ve really
understood.  It provides her the opportunity to insure that
your understanding–your listening–is right on.

Here are just a few of the scripts that can be applied to numerous situations as implication responses:

  • In light of our discussion, here are what I see as the next steps.
  • Base on what I’ve understood from you, I plan to attack the problem this way.
  • As I understand your description of the problem, I intend to go about resolving it this way.
  • Based on your explanation, I see the following drawbacks to that approach.

If, however, the person giving you the information disagrees with
your implication response, then she can clear up the issue–and you can
start over with implication responses.

I hope that two principles of listening are obvious from this
discussion of the implication response.  First, listening is not a
passive activity.  It’s not merely letting what a person says register
in your gray matter.   It’s going to require both thinking and further
interaction.  Second, and even more importantly, listening at its heart
is fundamentally about questioning.  It’s questioning your understanding
of what the other has said, and questioning the speaker in implication
terms.

A caveat: It takes time to get used to listening
this actively.  And framing implication questions is not always
obvious.  Still, taking time up front to check out your listening will
always save you time in the long run.  It’ll keep you from having to
redo your misunderstandings and also build your reputation as a capable
and thoughtful person.

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