How do I have fascinating conversations? | Are You Listening?

Are you a good listener? I can be a good listener, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect that most of us struggle a bit.

Every conversation is an exchange of ideas, with some exchanges being deeper than others. A conversation usually requires someone to be talking, but it’s not a conversation unless someone is listening. Even then, someone talking and someone listening isn’t a conversation that’s just a speech, to be a true conversation the role of talker and listener has to change. Most people don’t struggle with the talking side, the struggle is with the listening part.

In the book “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age” Edward Hess describes it like this:

You may think that you’re already a good listener. I (Ed) thought I was, but after truly digging into what it means to listen “reflectively,” I realized that in fact I interrupted people frequently to finish their sentences or to put forth what I thought was the answer. I often was creating my response in my head while people were still talking. In fact, I was a very poor listener. I did everything wrong. I listened for cues as to whether I had an opening to make my point. I “read” people to accomplish my objectives. Most of my conversations had a personal objective. I was not into casual conversations that I considered idle chitchat. I looked at a conversation in most cases as a transaction—as a vehicle to accomplish something. My mind wandered a lot when I “listened.” I got bored, and if I didn’t actually interrupt, I fidgeted and lost eye contact with the speaker. Winning, looking smart, and telling what I “knew” to advance my cause were my only purposes in listening to others. Today it’s embarrassing to write that. I was a piece of work. I was an awful listener at home and at work.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 116). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In the book Hess goes on to describe the characteristics of “Reflective Listening” something that the book regards as a core skill for the future workforce:

To be a good listener you have to be totally focused on the speaker with an open mind. You have to listen in a nonjudgmental way, with the only goal being to try to understand what the other person is saying before you prepare and deliver your response. Good listeners ask questions to make sure that they understand before responding, or they paraphrase and repeat back what they believe that the person said and ask if they’ve understood correctly. Good listeners then reflect, and as Bourne explained to me, they “try on” the other person’s idea to see how it would feel if they believed that, too. Taking the time to slow down and try on a new idea and see how it feels is what we mean by Reflective Listening.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 117). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Is this second description you? Or do you identify more with the first one?

Whether you call it Reflective Listening or not, I suspect that many of us can think of people who embody this kind of listening – but they aren’t the protagonists in our anti-patterns.

Listening and the Fascinating Conversation Anti-Patterns

Let’s take a look through the anti-patterns that I outlined last time and see what they have to tell us about listening.

The Soakers

For a fascinating conversation to occur it’s important that both of the people are playing their part, talking and listening.

The problem with The Soaker is that they only have one mode, talking. They respond to questions, but they aren’t in any sense, listening to the person asking the questions, nor are they asking reflective questions of the other members of the dialogue.

You through a ball against a wall and the wall bounces the ball back. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not a fascinating game of tennis.

There are times that no matter how hard you try as a listener, your correspondent isn’t going to make the grade required to turn the conversation into a fascinating exchange. The danger with that statement is that we give up too early on what could, given the right questions from us, become a fascinating conversation.

The Smart Bombers

These are the people who destroy the flow of a conversation by exploding a statement-bomb in the middle of it.

Smart Bombers are not listeners, they have something to say and they are going to say it even if it’s only barely connected to the conversation that’s already underway. The only thing that they are listening for is a gap into which they can make their statement, and they don’t always do that.

Listeners aren’t statement makers. Listeners ask questions.

The Agenda Enforcers

The Agenda Enforcers, those people who insist on a conversation following their set agenda, are sometimes good listeners, but more often than not they aren’t listening at all.

There are times when a conversation needs to follow an agenda to get to the required outcome or the needed interaction. In these instances, the Agenda Enforcer needs to be listening to the interaction and to keep it going in the required direction. These aren’t generally fascinating conversation, but sometimes they can be.

Where Agenda Enforcers generally fall down is in their need to control the dialogue too tightly. They often do this from the start. Many of us will recognise those situations where a discussion is taking place between members of a team about a subject only for the Agenda Enforcer to enter and say, “Right then, progress update.”

Everyone in the room is thinking “You mean the progress we were just talking about and the progress you’d understand if you’d only just sat and listened for 10 seconds.”

the Distracted Distractors

Many of us are so easily distracted that the slightest thing will drag us away from an interaction.

Listening isn’t a passive activity, it requires effort and focus – it requires attention. The Distracted Distractor’s lack of attention is still communicating, it’s communicating on many levels but probably the loudest thing it’s saying is “I don’t care about this conversation.”

Listening says “I care about this conversation.”

There are practical things that we can do to reduce our level of distraction, removing the primary distractions being the main one.

I, like many, get distracted by screens, so I try to remove them from the situation. When I get home in an evening, I place my iPhone in the study which, for me, is conveniently by the front door. The aim is for it to stay there all evening. This weekend we were at some friends for lunch and I wanted to be as engaged as I could in the conversation so as soon as I entered the house I placed my phone and keys in another room on a shelf and set to silent (the phone). When we do things like this it doesn’t take us long to forget that the screens are even there, we are just as easily distracted from our distractions.

the Non-Stop Talkers

I don’t think I need to say much here. Those people who won’t stop talking are only listening to one person and that’s themselves.

Listening in these situations isn’t easy and there are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the Non-Stop Talker is expecting far too much of our ability to retain information. If we are given too much information in one go we simply shut down. The other reason is, and it’s difficult to admit this, we get bored.

I’ve not, yet, found a good way of breaking into a monologue from the Non-Stop Talkers. Even when I have managed to interrupt it’s generally resulted in them returning to their monologue quite soon afterwards.

The Guessing Finishers

Let’s start with a positive statement for The Guessing Finishers – they are listening to the conversation; you need to listen to the beginning of a sentence if you are going to finish it for someone. The problem is that they are impatient listeners and that’s not good listening. Finishing someone’s sentence is not reflective listening. Great listening requires patience and time.

I have a friend who had a stroke some years ago this impacted her speech and her ability to recall words. Sometimes she does need help with a word, but she’ll ask if she does. Having a conversation with her can take a long time but what she has to say is always worth listening to.

When we are tempted to become a Guessing Finisher we need to slow down and to listen.

A New Anti-Pattern

Having reviewed our existing anti-patterns it occurs to me that we need a new one when we think about listening:

The Reflection Robots

I’ve done a couple of courses with the aim of building my listening skills. Each of these courses focused on a form of reflective listening based on a number of techniques. This anti-pattern comes out of a caricature of those sessions.

You are sat in a small room where there is some occasional furniture, but the most obvious furniture is two armchairs occupying the middle of the room. They are strategically placed at a 45-degree angle with a small coffee-table between them.

In one of the chairs is seated a person (you decide whether it’s a man or a woman, both are applicable) who is wearing safe casual clothes. Around their neck is a decorative scarf (I have no idea why these people like scarves so much). Their back is straight, their legs are bent with knees together and their hands are placed palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on their lap.

They beckon you to sit down, which you do. You’re not quite sure how to sit and adjust your position a few times before accepting that you are now as comfortable as you are going to get. Without realising it you are now sat with your back straight…your legs bent and knees together…and your hands are, yes, palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on your lap.

The person in the chair 45-degrees from you tilts their head to one side and asks in the softest voice you’ve ever heard “How can I help you?”

You then go on to explain that you’ve been feeling a bit glum recently.

They respond by saying in a voice that sounds like marshmallow “What I am hearing from you is that you are feeling a bit glum at present, is that correct?”

You reply that they understood correctly, and that the glumness had been continuing for some time.

They respond by stating in a cotton-wool tone of voice “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness has been continuing for some time, is that correct?”

You look at them and ponder whether Alexa would ask better questions, but you continue. You explain that you think the glumness started when you were recently upset by an incident with a close friend.

They respond, with their head still tilted at the same angle “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness started when an incident with a close friend occurred, is that correct?”

It’s then that you realise that you are paying for this.

This is not reflective listening, this is not a fascinating conversation, this is interacting with a robot.

How do I learn to listen?

There are some techniques to listening and some practical things that make listening better. There are a number of good articles and many good books available to help you understand these techniques. I’ve picked a few:

What you will understand from reading each of these articles is that there are techniques to help you become a good listener, but that truly great listening is a skill that requires practice. You’ll also notice that listening skills are linked to other of the so-called “soft skills”.

The great thing about developing the listening skill is that there are so many opportunities to practice. Imagine how far you could get if each conversation you had was just a little bit better than the one before.

I’m off now to find a scarf and to practice holding my head to one side.

How did that make you feel? 😉

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