No, You Can’t Become a Better Listener by Listening Harder

Listening is far more difficult, more fatiguing and often more frustrating than talking. But no, you can’t become a better listener by listening harder. And furthermore, even the best listeners have to bite their tongues to stop from reacting, interrupting or verbally identifying with the person talking. But there are a few simple ways to make certain your listening is truly effective.

Effective listeners listen for different levels of meaning.
The linguistic level is simply that to which the message refers. “Jim can’t come to the team meeting.” The individual words of the sentence and the sentence as a whole have linguistic meaning. “Jim” refers to one specific person and “can’t come” refers to a specific action that won’t take place. “Team meeting” is a well-defined event. That’s linear listening.

But it’s the non-linear, interpretive level of meaning where our brains really start churning. The interpretive level of meaning in a message is created by the complex set of cues within the message itself. These cues tell the other person how to make sense of the message. Is it to be taken seriously or lightly. Does the message mean exactly what’s being stated, or even the opposite of its literal content? That’s the really important stuff.

When the message is delivered face-to-face, there are liable to be mannerisms, facial, hand and body gestures, as well as inflections and tone of voice that give us clearer indications of how a transaction is to be interpreted. When the message is delivered by other means–text message, email,etc–all you have are the words.

The third level of meaning for most messages is the relational. The relational level of meaning is the complex set of cues within the message that indicate the relationship between the talker and the listener. Every message in an interpersonal transaction (that’s right, “every message”) either reinforces or modifies the existing relationship between the two persons involved.

In short, effective listening inevitably involves a lot of parallel processing.

Four keys to truly listening.
It’s obvious that the opportunities for misunderstanding within the three levels of meaning are numerous. But organizational listening, even within the interpersonal, is often loaded with potential problems or misunderstanding. Add different levels of hierarchy, work teams with several members, cultural and value differences, struggles for power, competition for scarce resources and the increased use of impersonal communication media to the soup and the possibilities are multiplied. Like musical chairs, it’s a near-perfect set up for misunderstanding. So here are four keys to more effective listening:

Avoid and ignore distractions. This doesn’t just mean shutting down your smartphone or closing your web browser. It’s especially important to stop the business of formulating your response to what the other person is saying. Simply focus on what’s being said at the differing levels. Focus, focus, focus.

Parrot and paraphrase. Because most don’t do this, it can make you feel silly. But parroting or paraphrasing not only shows the other person that you’re listening, it encourages them to keep talking by showing that you’re actually listening.

Ask thoughtful questions. Open-ended and implication questions help you see the issues more clearly. It also enables the talker to go deeper into what he or she sees as significant.

Explore other’s listening mistakes. It’s a lot more difficult to learn from our own mistakes than from others. Whenever I’m around a “he said, she said” conversation, I pay close attention to how a person draws conclusions from that experience. I stay curious about their interpretations, sometimes even asking about how they drew their conclusion from what they heard. If you’ve sat through a team meeting, for example, and afterword someone tells you what they heard and the meaning they made from it, you begin to see how that person created meaning and how it (sometimes) differs from you. So I don’t just walk away wondering what planet they’re on or why I missed that. Instead, I pay close attention to their inference creating, learning about my own skills and even my mistakes, from them. Statisticians will tell you that our inference creations are far, far more wrong than correct. Most of us rather automatically think that mistakes were made, but not by us. That dog won’t hunt.

The brilliant research scientist, Duncan Watts, formerly of Columbia University and now at Microsoft Research, has a lot to say about our inference, meaning-making capacities. In a fascinating McKinsey summary on the future of marketing, Watts finds that we need to start suspecting our intuition (our inference-drawing and meaning-making capacities). Watts is talking about hard data, but his comment applies even more strongly to interpersonal/team listening.

You may think this all sounds somewhat obvious, but watch and see how few use these strategies. Most can’t help thinking that they know why people do (say) what they do (say) or what they’re going to do. But whatever hypothesis or intuition you have, however self-evident it may seem, when you test it against the data, it’s wrong—not every time, but very often.

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