The fun, wonder and pure selfishness of listening

Good morning! I've been invited to share this blog post on listening, so here it is! I hope you enjoy it! I've also been asked by our dear colleague Rituu how I have used listening in my work. As someone dedicated to lifting up other people's stories, listening is absolutely core to my work. My intention is not just to listen for the facts, but the essence, the energy and the possibility in a person's story. I hope to share more about this in a coming blog post. In the meantime, be well! Warm regards, Michelle

Michelle Strutzenberger immersed in the art of listening during a recent generative interview.

The Fun, Wonder and Pure Selfishness of Listening

Trying to listen well — like striving to live healthy — can easily erode into a guilt-heavy, anxiety-stabbed experience.

What would it take to rediscover and soak in the fun, wonder and even pure selfishness of it?

I have feeling-thick memories of joining conversations among parents, older siblings, neighbours, where I was the child listener. Their murmuring for hours, their words and stories soaked into me like warm honey into bread.

Whether I was just a strange child or my circles had all manner of marvellous things to say or I’d stumbled upon some wonderful gift of life without knowing it, I relished those times of listening as much — if in different ways — as hours of soaking in the river on hot days.

That childlike joy in listening has grown into something different over the decades. While I still like to listen, sometimes it’s more of an effort than I would like it to be. There is so much to distract.

I am not naïve enough to think that discovering that exact same joy can or even should be the Holy Grail.

I am a different person. I’ve walked a long and often piercing road.

But I do think that pausing to reflect on those childhood experiences can at the very least offer a bit of encouragement. Not lessons. Not techniques. Just encouragement.

Here are three encouragements coming up for me now:

  1. Listening can be selfish. Not selfish as in I will listen to you to impress you or make you like me or even to make myself better (though I think it’s okay if that’s the case sometimes). But the purest selfish listening can be done, I think, just because I believe you’re such an amazing person whom I respect and how can I do anything other than take in that amazingness?
  2. Listening can be fun. At the risk of over-generalizing, I’ve gotten this sense that listening in our culture has become like the diet trend of the past. It’s the right thing to do. It’s good for my career and humanity. It’s a duty. Here’s a book on how to listen better. What if there were ways to see it as just plain fun? To actively make it fun?
  3. Listening can be a doorway into rediscovering the wonder of life. What if some of the sadness and jadedness of our current culture — okay, my own life, I’ll avoid projecting — has to do with that we’re always talking — whether that’s in person or on social media? Or that we’re always talking with those who seem the most like us? I’ve found some of my most wonder-filled moments have come from listening, really listening, to the imaginings of my children, the stories of my parents and grandparents, and the reflections of people who appear to be at a jarringly different place in life than I am.

Okay, enough talking. I’m off to listen.

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Comment by Michelle Strutzenberger on August 8, 2016 at 8:07pm

Thanks Rituu. I can definitely learn from this. I like the picture of good listeners as trampolines rather than sponges!

Comment by Nathalie Legros on August 7, 2016 at 11:03pm

thanks Rituu, very useful!

Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on August 5, 2016 at 11:01pm

Hi Michelle,

I want to share a resource which I got to know from Jennifer Lentfer.

Harvard Business Review

What Great Listeners Actually Do
By Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman
JULY 14, 2016

Chances are you think you’re a good listener.  People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.

In our experience, most people think good listening comes down to doing three things:

  • Not talking when others are speaking
  • Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)
  • Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word

In fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things – encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…” However, recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills.

We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference.  With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.

We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. We grouped them into four main findings:

  • Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to  want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.
  • Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive (or, for that matter, critical!). Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them. Good listening was characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
  • Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
  • Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. This finding somewhat surprised us, since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that “So-and-so didn’t listen, he just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” Perhaps what the data is telling us is that making suggestions is not itself the problem; it may be the skill with which those suggestions are made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. (Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.)

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

Of course, there are different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater focus and listening skill. Consider which level of listening you’d like to aim for:

Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.

Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye-contact.  (This  behavior not only affects how you are perceived as the listener; it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings.  Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.)

Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying.  They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct

Level 4: The listener observes nonbverbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals.  It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It sounds strange to some, but you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.

Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathizes with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.

Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light.  This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person.  However, good listeners never highjack the conversation so that they or their issues become the subject of the discussion.

Each of the levels builds on the others; thus, if you’ve been criticized (for example) for offering solutions rather than listening, it may mean you need to attend to some of the other levels (such as clearing away distractions or empathizing) before your proffered suggestions can be appreciated.

We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far. Our hope is that this research will help by providing a new perspective on listening.  We hope those who labor under an illusion of superiority about their listening skills will see where they really stand. We also hope the common perception that good listening is mainly about acting like an absorbent sponge will wane.  Finally, we hope all will see that the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

Comment by Michelle Strutzenberger on July 27, 2016 at 7:23pm

Thank you Nathalie, Rituu and Mohamed. I love what each of you have added to this subject.

Comment by Dr. E. Mohamed Rafique on July 27, 2016 at 5:29pm

I always used to say experience speaks and the greenhorns listen. But for you, I will have to change and say that your experience in listening speaks!

Comment by Nathalie Legros on July 27, 2016 at 12:35pm

Thanks Rituu and Michelle to bring fun in the listening; I relate to the selfishness as a kind of emptyness where I am rid of all my ideas and assumptions, and I open a free space for what you or the situation is telling me; and it is a completely new world, and it is amazing because there is LIFE in this world, and that makes the discovery joyful!

Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on July 27, 2016 at 8:22am

Michelle, while most recognise the importance of listening but find it hard and difficult to listen. What I loved about your blog was the joy you experience in listening! How listening can be an enjoyable exercise and its not about techniques and rules. Thank you!!

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