Are you listening?

When was the last time you really listened to another person with your full attention? No interruptions, no distractions, no rehearsing what you’re going to say next.

Every day we tell ourselves stories about what’s happening: we try to explain how things work, and our opinions and choices are shaped by the environment in which we operate. These stories are like waves on a lake, says user experience researcher Indi Young.

However, says Young, “A person’s inner thought process consists of the whys and wherefores, decision-making and indecision, reactions and causation. These are the deeper currents that guide a person’s behavior.”

HR and management advisers often tell us to practise ‘active listening’ or ‘focused listening’, and you can find plenty of online resources about those.

To really understand how people think and feel, we need to listen more deeply. It’s the start of developing genuine empathy.

Young identifies two types of empathy.

affective empathy:
1. Recognize another person is experiencing an emotion.
2. Remind yourself their emotion is valid for them. There is no ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ about their emotion.
3. Offer them a connection by letting them know you’d like to listen to them without offering solutions or judgments.
4. Listen. Stay out of judgment. (see above)
 

Affective empathy is key in helping peers, direct reports, stakeholders, friends, and family through their emotion by offering to share the ‘burden’ of their emotion. Sharing with a person who is non-judgmental, who does not offer solutions, is really freeing.

cognitive empathy:
Listen deeply, making sure you understand how another person’s inner thinking works. To understand at depth you need to encourage the person to go past the surface and speak at depth. 

Surface: preferences, opinions, explanations, statements of fact, generalizations, passive voice
Depth: reasoning, reactions, guiding principles

Cognitive empathy is key to supporting people in better ways, designed to their thinking-style, and across greater breadth of different thinking styles. Cognitive empathy is where we find the seeds for true innovation and support.

In a recent Friday Retro meting we practised a version of the Spaces For Listening method developed by Brigid Russell and Charlie Jones.

In a Spaces For Listening group, each person speaks uninterrupted for 2 minutes. Everybody takes a turn at speaking or listening. Ideally each participant gets three opportunities to speak:

  1. How you’re feeling and what’s on your mind right now
  1. Your reflections and feelings now, and in the light of what you heard in Round 1
  1. Appreciation of any particular comments or ideas you have heard during the previous rounds; and one thing you might like to carry forward

Indi Young suggests that deep listening begins with noticing the volume of your own inner thinking and whether it drowns out the meaning of what another person is saying. She offers three tips:

Notice your reactions: It’s human to have emotions. You can’t stop them from coming, just like you can’t stop the weather. But you can be prepared and notice when you have a reaction to something you hear. Major or minor, channel that reaction away. If you ignore it and let it ‘rain’ all over you, it will distract you from hearing what another person is saying.

Clear your mind of questions: Instead of probing like you would in an interview, stop thinking of what you would like to know. Don’t think of yourself. Don’t demonstrate what a well-versed conversationalist you are. Let go of your vast experience in whatever topic is mentioned. Bring a beginner’s mind, because every single thing this other person is trying to communicate is new to you — because it is coming from their perspective. Let them tell you.

Follow with rapt attention: If you become skilled in above items, then your mind will be freed to follow another person’s thinking. You’ll be able to focus all your attention on what they are trying to communicate, making sure you understand what they mean with a few clarifying questions or micro-reflections. You will never choose a new subject to discuss; instead you’ll keep to the topics this other person brings up. There is rich depth here. Understanding their perspective at depth will be a revelation to you, in many ways.

Here’s a summary of how to approach deeper listening:

“I hear your words.
I could now quickly fill in any gaps with assumptions, & fire back with what I think.
But have I really understood where you’re coming from?
What if I ask you to say a bit more, keep listening, & take a moment?
It’s tempting to react, but better to respond.”

(Charlie Jones tweet 26 June 2020)

PS: Indi Young’s book Practical Empathy demonstrates how applying empathy in an organisation, from strategic to operational levels, can deliver real business improvements.