The fall academic semester is well underway and my Interdisciplinary Innovation students are learning how to show vulnerability to establish trust, foster creative environments and strengthen group dynamics. These Master of Digital Media students will emerge at the end of this year being ever-more ready to lead in all sectors of our economy. To improve the communication skills necessary in leadership, students recently participated in a 2-hour, workshop-style class about the often underrepresented topic of listening.
In an excellent exploration of the topic of listening, journalist Kate Murphy has produced a gem of a resource called You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters. This book is jam-packed with excellent anecdotes, practical tips and a compelling argument that most of us can and should work on our listening skills. Afterall, listening is a practiced skill that we can improve upon. During the Interdisciplinary Innovation class, I asked students to recall a time they really felt listened to, either in a specific encounter or an individual who is a particularly good listener. I then asked them: “How did you know the other person was listening?” (Think about your own answer before reading on). We collectively created a digital word cloud, whereby the most common answers grew and appeared larger than the other text in real time. Some of the most common words that emerged included body language, eye contact, asking questions, actively responding, nodding, attention and no distractions, among others.
In speaking about this topic with two professional listeners, psychotherapists Jen Hunter and Sue Hunter, both ask questions of their patients and genuinely want to learn the answers. As trained listeners, they remind us that the act of listening happens on different levels – listening to the words being said, the words not being said and the body language conveyed. Furthermore, listening with a sense of curiosity and the open-heartedness and open mindedness that we can learn something from everyone (even if we don’t agree with that person) is an important part of the process. Murphy echoes this sentiment: “To listen does not mean, or even imply, that you agree with someone. It simply means you accept the legitimacy of the other person’s point of view and that you might have something to learn from it. It also means that you embrace the possibility that there might be multiple truths, and understanding them all might lead to a larger truth.”
It’s the larger truths that facilitate innovation and the solving of large, complex problems. So while our ever-busy worlds full of deadlines seem incompatible with the notion of slowing down and listening to one another, it’s an essential function of the teamwork we’re immersed in daily. In thinking about reasons why to dedicate a meeting to practicing listening skills, here are a few thoughts that came to mind:
• Listening plugs you into life, the present moment and the here and now
• Listening is the ultimate rapport-builder
• Attentive listening improves the quality of the conversation
• Attention is the currency of the future
• Active listening will allow you to differentiate yourself in teams where everyone is vying to have their say
• Listening is a skill we use every day but rarely focus on improving
Ultimately, there are an overwhelming number of upsides to improving our listening skills and very few downsides.
Becoming better listeners
In order to become better listeners, we must practice honing the skills that actually make us better listeners. Below is a 3-part Zoom-friendly exercise suitable for small or medium-sized groups. (I was working with 34 participants and it ran very smoothly). I recommend maintaining the same pairs/partners throughout, as greater trust can be established in each activity, potentially improving the overall outcome. Furthermore, to maintain momentum throughout the three activities, I recommend asking participants to take two minutes between each activity to jot down any thoughts, ideas or insights, so they’ll be ready for debriefing at the end. A great first step to becoming a better listener is getting comfortable with silence.
1. SILENCE. Time: 4 minutes. Participants: 2 per group
About: Silence can feel uncomfortable. A lull in conversation is fine (and encouraged) as it opens doors to increased confidence in ourselves as communicators, teaching us new ways to be present when listening.
Instructions: Ideally with cameras turned on, cellphones put away and any distractions minimized, sit in silence with your partner in a breakout room. Level up by maintaining eye contact throughout (your eyes looking into their eyes on screen, not into the camera). Refrain from speaking. When we feel more comfortable with silence and not having an immediate response, our internal dialogues can shift from ourselves to the speaker.
2. JUST LISTEN. Time: 6 minutes (3 minutes each). Participants: 2 per group
About: Once we’re okay with silence, we can more fully listen to another person because the compulsion to fill up every ounce of space with conversation is alleviated. Active listening requires gifting someone with your undivided attention. By practising listening without feeling the pressure to respond, we can encourage a shift in our internal dialogue’s focus from ourselves to the speaker.
Instructions: In pairs, take turns telling a simple story (example: walking the listener through what you did today). It’s the listener’s opportunity to practice quieting the urge to interrupt. Half way through (after 3 minutes), switch roles. When we can really, actively listen to another person, we can start to uncover someone’s core values and beliefs, building empathy in the process.
3. WONDER WHY. Time: 8 minutes (4 minutes each). Participants: 2 per group
About: Once we begin to really, actively listen to another person, we start to hear, see and feel a deeper connection. We begin to wonder ‘why’? Empathy can form as we better understand another person’s underlying values and core beliefs. This activity is all about genuinely wanting to better understand your conversational partner.
Instructions: In pairs, one person should act as the conversation starter and the other as the respondent. The conversation starter will ask: “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?” The respondent will answer this question and at natural breaks throughout the conversation, the conversation starter will ask three additional questions, all of which start with ‘why’ (without switching focus to themselves). The respondent will genuinely answer the questions. Half way through (after 4 minutes), switch roles.
DEBRIEFING. Now it’s time to debrief the exercise with the entire group, asking questions to uncover what participants learned by completing the three exercises. For example, what was the most challenging part of the exercises? What did they learn about themselves and/or about their partner in the process? How will they take their new-found appreciation for key listening skills into their personal and professional lives?
Listening soesn’t end when the conversation ends
Author Kate Murphy leaves us with an interesting idea. She believes that listening doesn’t end when the conversation ends. When a conversation is over, she encourages you to ask yourself the following questions: What did I just learn about that person? What was most concerning to that person today? How did that person feel about what we were talking about? At the end of our class about listening, students revealed that while sometimes uncomfortable, they felt they learned more about themselves and their classmates during the exercises. Their connections to one another deepened (which is not an easy feat in a virtual classroom), while concurrently, their understanding of the skills necessary to listen improved deeply. One student described the experience as ‘pleasantly awkward.’ I’ll take it!
While our individual worlds may seem too hurried and too chaotic to stop what we’re doing and listen, we’re doing ourselves and our communities a disservice by not prioritizing this form of communication. Without listening, it’s challenging to foster the most important relationships that permeate our personal and professional lives; the very relationships that make our days as human beings meaningful and enriching.