Subscribers to my newsletter received a free gift that included information on what I call “The Projection Dilemma.” It is a label I give to reactions you have when interacting with someone whose words, body language and/or tone sound or look like a person from your past. If you react by using strategies that kept you safe when you were young, it is as if you are seeing through the eyes of your childhood, mistaking the boss for your parent or sibling. Since everyone “projects” in this way, some occasionally and some frequently, listening is essential to harmonious and productive communications.
When you realize how prevalent the Projection Dilemma’s influence is in exchanges between people—that there are infinite meanings and interpretations for every interaction—seeking to understand becomes the primary objective of any dialogue, which is only accomplished by being authentically curious and empathically listening.
Listening is more than an auditory function. The best listeners hear with all their senses. They notice congruence, or incongruence, between words, tones, facial expression, and body language—a visual listening skill. They notice their own gut reactions to words, tones and body language—an intuitive or kinesthetic listening skill. They notice their own feelings, knowing when they are feeling an unexpressed emotion of their own or whether someone is telling an emotionally charged story without expressing their feelings—an emotional and clairsentient listening skill.
Skilled listeners set aside their own opinions, stereotypes and assumptions and truly seek to understand the experience of another. They hear sentences and facts as well as the meaning behind what is said. Whether they are certain or uncertain that they have correctly understood meaning and content, they confirm and clarify understanding so the other person feels heard and understood.
They make no assumptions when they see someone role their eyes or look down when speaking. If they are curious about what leads someone to role their eyes, look away or use a certain gesture, they know how to clarify understanding in the context of their positive intention to have a meaningful and productive exchange. There are two listening techniques that facilitate this level of listening—active and empathic, also known as, compassionate listening.
Active Listening is when you repeat back exactly what you heard, like you would phone numbers. This works best with someone who gives you account numbers or addresses, when someone has an accent that is difficult to understand, or when you want to make sure details of a problem are noted correctly.
Empathic Listening is when you put what is said into your own words in one sentence or 3 bullets using a natural transition that doesn’t sound canned like “What I heard you say is….” Instead, it may be your style to say, “Let me see if I got this right…,” then summarize what you heard. You can also use a question that confirms what you heard. For instance, to someone who makes a general statement about how confusing and overwhelming a new form is, ask, “What is confusing about the layout of the new form?”
Tips for Respectful Listening
1. When you are listening, turn off your phone and pop-up reminders, better yet the full screen. Show that you are listening by nodding. If the other party is comfortable with you taking notes, take notes. Make sounds like “Yes” or “Um, hum” to acknowledge that you are listening.
2. Block a specific amount of time. Let the focus of the meeting be on achieving understanding, even if it takes a couple of meetings. Let exploring solutions come after understanding is achieved. It will save time correcting errors that arise from jumping to conclusions and making decisions before each person agrees that they have been heard and understood.
3. If you don’t have time to listen fully to a complaint, interrupt them to schedule time when you can. People who complain can be productive contributors when their solutions are encouraged after they feel fully heard and understood.
4. Above all, be authentic. If you didn’t understand something, say, “Excuse me, I didn’t understand the last comment.” With someone who doesn’t speak my language well, I’ve humbly said, “With apologies, I still don’t understand. Did I hear you say ________?” when I am not sure what they said. I will even write the word if needed before continuing.
Listening is how you put the relationship above completing the transaction and moving on to the next customer. Ensuring that you understand and the other person feels understood may seem like it slows the work down. Yet, in the long run, it minimizes errors and builds loyalty, two qualities that produce bottom-line revenues.
Coming up Next: What to do when others don’t listen to you.
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