I’m not a naturally patient listener. When someone else is speaking, my mind tends to be at work, and I often want to jump in, continue a thought, build on an idea, or ask a brilliant (of course!) question. The hardest part of listening, for me, is not interrupting. I think fast and, I admit, tend to think I know what you’re going to say—and can build on it—before you’re even done. I spend a good part of my energy, while listening to you, figuring out what I’m going to say next.
None of these are unusual habits—you might recognize yourself in the above paragraph. The challenge is that I firmly believe that listening is the foundational skill of leadership.
Listening intently and with full presence enables a leader to fully understand, to make sense of what is around them, and move forward with wisdom.
Being listened to enables the speaker or employee to feel heard, seen, and acknowledged—feelings that enable them to be fully engaged.
While some of us are “natural” listeners and others are more challenged, I do believe that everyone can become a better listener and that all of us can continue to improve the quality of our listening. In this post, I’m going to share a simple practice that I’ve adopted that has significantly shifted the quality of my listening. I’ll start by telling the story of how I stumbled upon the practice.
Last July, three close friends of mine and I gathered to work with Sara Hart who teaches the methods outlined in the book Time to Think, by Nancy Kline. Over three days together we practiced something called Thinking Partnerships. We took turns asking another person what they wanted to think about and what their thoughts were. Then we listened. And listened. And listened some more. Finally, when our partner said all that she had to say, we asked, “What else are you thinking?” And listened some more, until the “thinker” had finished thinking. This typically continued for about 25-30 minutes and somewhere along the line, the thinker began to think or say things that she hadn’t thought before.
Being the listener is a powerful experience. To observe how often you want to step in—how many questions you want to ask and observations you want to share. When you’re disciplined enough not to speak and, instead, stay attentive to the speaker, you observe your questions and thoughts begin to fade, and the speaker’s words become more interesting and more important.
You realize that, with you simply listening, they went exactly where they needed to go. It’s humbling to realize that you were not that important—and at the same time to know that your undivided attention (you don’t even take notes!) gave another human being the space to think as they perhaps have never thought before. The speaker or thinker has the powerful experience of speaking with the full knowledge that no one will step on their thoughts, that they will not be interrupted, and they have all the time they need.
I left our weekend thinking maybe I’d be a notch better listener when I was coaching, a little less anxious to interrupt and a bit less sure that I knew what my client was going to say. What I didn’t expect was that it would permanently change how I listened. And that the big shift for me has come through the practice of the pause.
Here’s what it looks like: After I ask a question, and the person I’m speaking with—often a client—finishes answering, I pause for two seconds, maybe three. Two things happen in the pause. One is on my end. I have time to quickly reflect and decide how to respond. What do I want to ask? What is important for me to say? Because I know I’ll have the pause, I’m able to listen to the person when they are speaking with full presence, spending less energy figuring out how to respond. The second thing is that I give the speaker time to pause as well. In that pause they often begin to speak again. And, almost without fail, they now speak a new thought, something that would likely never have surfaced had I quickly responded.
In that moment, I set my thinking aside and listen again. Very often, the conversation takes a different, more powerful turn.
The results have been amazing. Better thinking, better outcomes. People feel heard and I learn more. And yet, simple is not the same as easy.
There are many ways to approach turning a good idea into a habit or practice. I highly recommend a wonderful framework for creating new habits in Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit—a resource for becoming a better coach and listener. It goes like this: find the trigger (when this happens), identify the current behavior (instead of) and define the new behavior (I will).
Here’s what this looks like for me: “When I want to jump in as another person is thinking, instead of waiting until the second they finish their thought, I will slow down and wait a few seconds before I begin to speak.” Keeping that phrase handy helps me to remember. I’ve now done it enough times that it’s becoming natural.
I encourage you to try this out and see if it has the same effect that it did for me. If so, think about how you can create a new habit or practice. And, remember, this small practice can make a world of difference in the ongoing pursuit of better listening and more powerful leadership.