Updated: Oct 25, 2019
The movie Forrest Gump used his character to tell us things we already know yet don’t fully understand. Listening is one of those things. We think we know a lot about listening, and maybe we do know a lot about the WHY and the WHAT of listening.
But more importantly, we don’t see HOW our listening behaviors and skills affect others. Our bus-sized blind spots (see our blog, Is There Danger In Your Blind Spot) prevent us from seeing things we don’t want to see. We usually see only what we want to see, and given our noble intentions, we see ourselves as good listeners. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, “Today’s my day to be a poor listener. Nobody will notice.” Yet just like in Forrest’s statement, how we behave (Stupid Is as Stupid Does) defines us; it is not at all about how we see ourselves.
First, Understand the Barriers
Technology accentuates the number of things that compete for our attention, which creates environmental and physiological barriers. While we are on the phone with someone, attempting to listen, our computer screen signals that there are incoming messages. Our cell phones vibrate to signal that someone has texted or is trying to reach us. While we cover one ear with a headset to hear the phone conversation better, the other ear provides all sorts of distracting signals from what is going on around us. Other physiological factors can be as simple as we are tired, we have handled 10 consecutive negative calls, or we are hungry and need to recharge ourselves.
Additionally, there are many other barriers.
Content barriers: we don’t have all the same content or context as the others with whom we are trying to converse. Others may have a content expertise we do not have, may use jargon that we don’t fully understand. Material may be organized in a way we do not appreciate or understand.
Psychological barriers: we are negative or positive about the subject and differ significantly with others on where we’re coming from and/or why. We appear to be adversarial rather than collaborative. We express our frustration with the nitwit on the other side who isn’t listening. We fail to see the upside, the potential good that might come from our actions and behavior. We see their blind spots but not our own. Others may react to our accent, rate of speech, delivery approach, or even our sentence construction.
Cultural barriers: our background may be so different from others involved in discussion that the reasons to make or not make a decision just don’t seem to make sense to others. Our approach may offend others without our even knowing it, e.g., we are very direct and demanding in negotiations where the others are indirect and believe in taking time to explore opportunities extensively before revealing a behavioral reaction. Our rapid-fire questions appear to be an interrogation to the other side.
Personal style barriers: We demand extensive factual analyses and cost models for decisions that others see as straightforward and routine. Or we get distracted with personal relationship issues whereas others are task focused and work hard to keep all emotional context out of the conversation.
Excellence is a Practice: Get a Coach
Those are a lot of heavy-hitting barriers to handle alone until you are an excellent listener. These barriers are all in addition to your job responsibilities and knowledge. While you are working hard to get your job done, the coach’s added eyes and ears can have a very valuable impact. The coach can provide you with real-time feedback as to how you handled every barrier, the impact of what you did, and provide ideas on what specifically you could do differently. And how you might do it.
In a complex conversation, particularly one involving several people, you are concentrating so intently on what you’re hearing, what you might do, what you decide to do, and how you execute that action that you cannot accurately assess your skill in listening. Your supervisor/manager does not necessarily need to be your coach. Sometimes a peer/co-worker makes the best coach. Sometimes it is someone not even in your department who can perform best as a coach. You need to know what you want the coach to do so you can recruit the coach best for you.
At some point, you may be asked to coach someone. Everybody makes a mistake now and then in the middle of a complex, high pressure job. You need a coach who will let you know the truth but not hold on to the negativity of the moment.
Join us next week when we will address what a coach can do to help you with more than just the complexity of the barriers to excellent listening.
Need help developing your listening skills?
…your organization’s skills?
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