By Allison O'Brien
Just last week I was talking to a colleague and brilliant thought partner who shares a passion for listening. She said, “I want to run something by you that I’ve been struggling with. It’s the word ‘curious’ when it comes to listening. Encouraging people to be “curious” in their listening isn’t sitting well with me lately and I would love your thoughts.”
I was hooked but couldn’t quite answer yet without knowing more. So, I asked, “Can you say more?”
The basic gist was, after years of using the word, encouraging folks to be “curious in listening” and to seek more information, ask questions before coming to a conclusion or sharing their perspective, it no longer felt right. The word “curious” had started conjuring up images of the mischievous little monkey, George, and thoughts of children asking “why?”
I had never thought of it that way, but I could see it, especially in the realm of teaching professionals to become more agile and intentional listeners. Listening is bigger than simply seeking answers.
Perhaps it’s just semantics, but it got me thinking that we need to be more specific and clarify our intended meaning if we want to use the word “curious” regarding listening. It also got me wondering what the true dictionary definition is and what comes to mind for others when they hear it. So, I took to the internet.
“What is the meaning of curious?” yielded outcomes I hadn’t expected,
like: “If you’re curious, you really want to know something — like the secret ingredient that makes these cookies so crunchy. You may wish you hadn’t been so curious when you find out it’s roasted crickets.”
My search certainly validated my colleague’s thoughts when using the word. Amongst Miriam Webster’s, Cambridge English Dictionary, Collins and Dictionary.com, the definition of curious was consistent and promising in that each onestarted with inquisitive and eager to learn. That lines up with our intention! However, the definitions also had some element of prying, being meddlesome or intrusive, which clearly does not align.
When we use any word, we use it from our own perspective and interpretation of its meaning, often without deep consideration of what it means to others. And now, with the image of a little monkey causing trouble, it was clear that I needed to reconsider specific language I’ve been using in the context of listening. For over a decade I’ve been encouraging people to “get curious,” when I really mean, “apply intentional effort to truly seek understanding.” It’s a very subtle but important distinction.
When we encourage people to seek other perspectives, to cue into what is important to others, especially in collaborative settings with high stakes outcomes, it requires an intrinsic desire to learn and takes intentional effort.
So how do we apply this new insight regarding listening to real-world business settings? As a sales director for example, when you coach salespeople to ask questions in order to listen to the answers, be more specific. Encourage them to seek intrinsic motivation to learn what’s important to their buyer. Then, speak directly to what they say versus steering the conversation towards the pitch they had prepared to deliver.
In a meeting setting, to harness the cognitive diversity of the group, commit to listening while withholding your viewpoint and silencing your opinions until all others have shared their different thoughts.
Listening with an innate desire to learn is curiosity on steroids. It’s not just about getting answers. It’s about the opportunity and potentiality for collective inspiration and innovation. So, next time you’re in a meeting, or any conversation for that matter, when you preface a question with “I’m curious…,” pause and ask yourself, “Am I truly inspired to learn?”
By Allison O'Brien
Have you ever found yourself becoming increasingly impatient in a conversation or a meeting and then realized later that you missed something important or made incorrect assumptions? I know I have! Perhaps like me, your urgency to interrupt, correct the speaker, or offer up another idea builds, and you lose focus on what the speaker is saying. You may even stop listening and disengage all together because you’re simply disinterested.
Listening is an art. It’s also a science. And the best listening requires patience, commitment and self-awareness.
Most people assess their own listening with a value judgement. They often pride themselves on being a “good” listener or lament the fact that they are a “bad” listener. In the latter case, some may jump on the internet searching for tips to improve their listening skills.
When you Google “Tips to Improve Listening” or “How to Become a Better Listener” dozens of articles come up with lists of similar suggestions:
If you think about it, most of these suggestions give the speaker the appearance that you are listening but there is nothing here that recommends how to be a better listener. Making eye contact and repeating what was said does not mean you heard and fully comprehend what was said. What’s missing is:
Developing greater self-awareness of your own unique listening preferences and habits.
Unfortunately, self-awareness never makes the list. Knowing what engages or challenges our attention is the first step in preparing for the most valuable interactions and creating the best outcomes.
Research has proven that listening is a cognitive process in which individuals develop preferences or habitual listening behavior over time. Our listening habits determine what we pay attention to, to what and when we disengage, and also influence what we think about, care about, and talk about.
When we get to know our listening preferences, we develop Listening Intelligence, the ability to adjust our listening to the people, context, and situation at hand. We can then do a better job of staying present and engaged and ultimately expand our understanding of the situation.
Understanding brain physiology can help as well. Most people speak at a rate of roughly 125 words per minute. However, our brains have the capacity to process more than 700 words per minute. This discrepancy between rate of speech and thought is often a contributing factor in our ability to stay attentive and focused, especially when the content of the conversation is not in alignment with our default listening biases.
In just under a decade of helping people become more agile listeners, I’ve observed that if our listening preferences are not satisfied, we become less engaged, which causes us to lose patience in communication and conversation. This presents in different ways in different types of listeners.
Let’s talk about the four listening habits identified in the research: Connective, Reflective, Analytical and Conceptual, and what this means for levels of engagement, patience, and what can be done when attention starts to wane, and frustration begins to mount.
Connective listeners focus on the human component of the interaction.
Their motivation to listen is often determined by their attitude towards the speaker and those involved or impacted by the discussion. They’re likely to shut down their listening if they don’t resonate with the speaker. Alternatively, if they do, they may feel the need to step in on behalf of the speaker or the audience.
Connective listeners are perceived as patient by others. They tend to be a “caretaker” in conversation and will let people finish without interrupting. Their encouraging and supportive body language often gives the appearance of active engagement, though this doesn't necessarily mean they are actually listening. They will often let people continue to speak, despite feeling impatient on the inside. They do a very good job hiding it in their facial expression or body language. As such, speakers generally believe they’re listening and feel heard and satisfied in conversation with them.
Tip: You may be overcompensating to show attention by excessive head nodding, utterances of agreement and encouragement, or constant eye contact. This can be perceived as interested and understanding; in which case the speaker believes they have conveyed their message thoroughly. If you are a Connective listener, check in with yourself. You’ll notice when you’ve lost interest and you’ve shut off the speaker and the message. When you find yourself nodding but not listening, take inventory of your body language and adjust if needed. Ask a fact-finding question to re-engage.
Reflective listeners filter through their personal database of interests and experiences. They will tend to tune out if they don’t perceive the information applies to them.
If they are really interested in the content or it's very important to them, Reflective listeners may be very patient, soaking in every relevant detail. However, they can become impatient when the content isn’t relevant to their role or interesting to them. They won't hesitate to interrupt and let you know that they don't need to be informed about something, that they have nothing to contribute or where they're not needed. They may also interrupt if they know the answer and believe they can help move things forward and save time.
Tip: If you resonate with Reflective listening, as you feel your patience waning, and you either believe you know the answer and/or you don’t see personal relevance, this is your cue to get curious. Your impatience and readiness to move on just might be the indication that you are missing something important. Ask yourself, “What do I need to learn to either support or refute my thinking?” By slowing down and redirecting, you may find you have an unanswered question or realize you can contribute and inspire the conversation in a way that draws you back in.
Analytical listeners care about data, evidence and accuracy. They will likely withdraw when the conversation becomes more abstract or lacks a specific focus.
Analytical listeners often become increasingly impatient and intolerant when speakers aren’t practical, don't get to the point or back up what they're saying. They will interrupt, calling out discrepancies and/or to correct a speaker. However, they will be very patient listeners and learners when speakers share their thinking in a concise way using evidence (that can be sourced upon request) versus how they feel about the content or the discussion point.
Tip: If Analytical listening sounds like your preferred habit and you find yourself frustrated and losing patience because you perceive the conversation is too abstract or you see the decision as clear cut, but deliberation is still going on, consider pulling back to observe the situation with a greater appreciation for the gray versus what seems black or white. If your immediate response is “No, that’s not right,” try to replace it with “Could there be something more?” Great solutions and possibilities may unfold when you allow time for ideation and discussion.
Conceptual listeners have an ear for future possibilities, potentiality and patterns. Without room for fresh thinking and creative problem-solving they will tend to grow bored and disconnect.
In general, Conceptual listeners self-report they quite often struggle to listen patiently and are aware of their tendency to interrupt. They want to contribute and love to brainstorm, bouncing ideas around. If they are inspired by something that was said, they will feel an urgency to contribute and speak and share. They may not only interrupt with words but can also indicate their urgency to speak with their body language. If the conversation doesn't allow for fresh thinking or brainstorming, they may become bored, and will likely check out.
Tip: As natural idea-generator, if you feel an urgency to chime in or interrupt, pause. Don’t speak just yet. Ask yourself, “Is right now the time to share my thought?” Internally vet your thinking and your ideas as the conversation develops and unfolds. In the pause, you may find that what you were going to say is actually not valuable in the moment, but it may be once you’ve given it more time to think through and process. If the idea is a good one, it will still be there in 5 minutes or even the next day.
As we learn more about the science of listening, it has become increasingly clear that “good or bad” is an oversimplification of a very complex process. Improving our listening requires that we develop acute awareness of our own unique obstacles, specifically which situations cause us to succumb to common attention pitfalls, and then apply intentional effort, discipline and agility to adjust on the fly.
The next time you find yourself frustrated or impatient in conversation, ask yourself, “What am I focusing on and what shift can I make right now to be a better listener in this moment?”
By Dana Dupuis
You're no stranger to the concept of communication. After all, communication — whether over the phone or face-to-face — is a huge part of your work life. However, when many people think about communication, they're biased towards the role of speaking. But the other half of communication, listening, is equally important. By improving your ability to listen, you will improve your communication overall. And that can make big differences for your team's productivity.
How listening improves productivity is one of our most loved topics and we wanted to re-share it now because it's even more relevant today than we originally posted it almost two years ago. Read more below on how more effective listening can boost you and your team's productivity!
1. Make Meetings Work For Your Team
In their ideal form, meetings are meant to achieve important ends. A well-run meeting inspires collaboration, clarifies ambiguities, and sets clear goals for moving forward. When everyone leaves the meeting, they should feel like they're leaving with a cohesive and actionable plan — and a solid understanding of the meeting's purpose. But here's what many people really think of meetings, according to Harvard Business Review's survey of 182 senior managers:
We're entering the era of the truly collaborative workplace. According to Forbes, workers with a more collaborative mindset will stay committed to a task 64% longer than those working alone. The collaborative workers are also less prone to be fatigued, and they have a higher success rate overall. Forbes cites another study from Stanford University which found that collaboratively-inclined companies were more likely to be high-performing.
So it's clear that high levels of collaboration are linked to higher performance and productivity. How should businesses work on promoting collaboration? Well, the first step is to focus on communication at all levels. It's impossible to collaborate effectively on a project if members of the team aren't listening to one another.
Think about it: if individuals on a team have ideas, concerns, or suggestions that aren't being properly heard, how can anything move forward? If your team feels like their professional input is ignored or misunderstood, how can they possibly contribute to collaborative projects effectively? By promoting better listening skills, you can take your teams' collaborative efforts to the next level of performance.
3. Improve your Bottom Line: Client or Customer Facing Results
Most businesses have a customer or client-facing division. This looks different across all industries. In the medical industry, for example, you might be engaging directly with clients seeking health services. If you're in sales, your team is actively trying to promote excellent products to consumers.
You probably already see where this is going. If you have clients or customers who feel like they're not being heard, understood, or listened to, then it frankly doesn't matter how stellar your services or products are. Incredibly, businesses lose $62 BILLION per year due to poor customer service.
When you practice better listening with clients and customers, it leads to some undeniable positives:
Let's take a look at some alarming facts about employee engagement. According to Gallup, only 34% of employees feel engaged at work. By "engaged," this means that they are passionately involved in their work life and actively contributing to innovation. Still more alarming is the fact that 13% of employees are actively disengaged, meaning that they are so miserable with their jobs that they undermine the business and other employees constantly.
And engagement definitely has a ripple effect in the workplace: the same Gallup survey reports that more engaged work forces have higher employee retention rates, higher productivity, and are 21% more profitable. According to Gallup, companies with impressive rates of engagement owe some of that success to "continuous company-wide communication."
By promoting a culture of listening at your business or company, you can take the first step towards a more engaged work force. If your employees feel like their concerns, ideas, and questions aren't being heard, then it makes sense their engagement would be low. There can be no engagement without communication, and there can be no adequate communication without good listening.
5. Innovation & Constant Improvement
Let's take a look at Google, one of the most innovative companies of our era. How do they maintain such a high level of innovation? According to Google, one of the ways they foster innovation is to "launch, and keep listening." In other words, they make feedback a consistent part of their creation cycle. Additionally, Google emphasizes the power of sharing everything within teams. Ideas are freely circulated and shared with other team members, so that innovative solutions can be sought.
Innovation comes from the power of human ideas. In a workplace where employees consistently feel like their input is not valued, they're going to be far less likely to innovate and explore opportunities for growth. Encourage your staff to seek constant improvement by truly listening to them. Additionally, teach them how to listen to one another and grow from personal experience.
How to Improve Listening Skills
Better listening is pivotal to increasing productivity in the workplace, but how do you achieve this goal? At ECHO Listening Intelligence, we strive to improve listening skills in professional environments. We understand that every human brain is different, so everyone therefore listens in a different way. Our goal is to identify and strengthen individuals' natural listening skills in order to boost effective communication — and productivity. If you're interested in learning more about Listening Intelligence, read more in our white paper below!
By Allison O'Brien
I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “I hate sales.” Whether they said it from the perspective of “I don’t want to sell,” or “I don’t like the feeling of being ‘sold’ to,” I get it. I hate the typical notion of sales as well, what it is and how it’s generally done. But that’s not how it has to be. We can shift that paradigm by making sales about learning and listening first.
Last week I had a conversation with a friend in my network about the opportunity to attend a free webinar presented by an organization supporting women in sales. This friend is self-employed and does incredible work that makes a difference; she facilitates communication training for leaders and teams, specifically focused on enhancing leadership listening capabilities. In our current corporate culture, I believe we need more of what she does. But she is reluctant to “sell.” She told me, “I’m not a salesperson. I’m a teacher and a listener. I want to make the world a better place by teaching people how to listen and understand each other. That’s how we change the way business is done.”
Admittedly, she resists anything having to do with sales training, CRMs, follow-up cadence, etc. She said, “I don’t want to sell. When people find me, we have a conversation and I try to understand them, and they understand me and then they decide to work with me.”
So I said, “Then actually, I would say you’re one of the best salespeople I know!” Clearly, she listens and builds trust in order to “close the deal.” Then I thought, "What if she were able to have many more of those conversations? What would that ultimately do for her income and the impact she can make in the world?"
At the most fundamental level, people want to feel heard and understood, not spoken at or sold to. Unfortunately, this is how our culture views sales; salespeople talk too much and don’t listen enough. In fact, a 2016 global survey fielded by HubSpot, 69% of buyers wish that their salesperson listened to their needs and 61% want a seller that “isn’t pushy” and provides information relevant to them. In a sales role, without a commitment to listen first versus advocate, it’s nearly impossible to build trust, and trust is ranked the number one component in choosing to work with a salesperson by 51% of decision-makers.
I suggest we shift our perspective and consider sales to be an even exchange. Maybe my friend was onto something. What if we were to call ourselves Listeners instead of Salespeople? The most critical aspect of meeting the needs of our buyer and closing a sale is being able to listen to their needs and articulate how we can meet them. Listening comes first. Speaking and sharing information comes dead last. In between, ask questions to confirm what is important to them. Here are four simple things you can do to start shifting the sales experience, both for you and your potential clients and customers:
By Allison O'Brien
The first time you meet someone new in a business or personal setting, the first question typically asked is, “What do you do for work?”
When I say, “I teach listening,” they usually perk up, lean in, and often laugh and say, “Oh man do I need you! I’m a terrible listener!” or “We really need you at my company. No one listens.”
So to that first response I say, “There’s no such thing as a good or bad listener. Listening is a brain-based habit. We develop habits over time and the good news is you can change a habit if you put some intentional effort towards it. It’s hard and takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
To the second reaction I say, “I agree. Every company needs the work I do because there’s a huge cost to poor listening.”
In fact, 70% of small to medium sized businesses say “ineffective communication” is their primary problem. A study by SIS International reported that SMBs spend 17.5 hours per week clarifying miscommunications. This translates into annual costs of $524,569 due to lost productivity. That same figure grows to $37 billion in Fortune 500 companies!
Given the costs, it makes sense to put some time and effort into improving the way teams communicate, specifically how they leverage listening to improve business results.
Unfortunately, listening and communication are often considered to be “soft skills” in the workplace, leading companies to invest more time and money into technical and sales training. The misperception is that “hard skills” are believed to translate directly into profitability, whereas “soft skills” aren’t perceived to directly contribute to the bottom line. One explanation is that we live in a culture that values speed and there is a systemic belief that slowing down for what is perceived as non-essential training means decreased productivity.
It has been proven, however, that listening is actually a hard skill that drives ROI and business results. Companies with highly effective communicators have had a 47% higher total return to shareholders compared to the least effective communicators. These same companies are three and a half times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers.
If companies want to increase bottom line, they have to slow down and invest training and development dollars into improving communication and specifically developing Listening Intelligence, the skill and agility we develop over time when we gain greater awareness of our individual listening preferences and apply that understanding when communicating with our colleagues and teams.
Here are 2 things you can do to improve Listening Intelligence within your organization:
1. Embrace the full communication equation.
Speaking is only 1/2 of the conversation. People spend between 70-80% of their workday engaged in some form of communication, and approximately 55% of that time is devoted to listening.
We spend so much time and effort thinking about how to present information, but very little awareness is placed on how we receive it. As a result, we don’t even realize we’re usually missing part of what’s being communicated. Have you ever left a meeting thinking everyone is aligned and it becomes clear later that people are going forward in completely different directions? Our unconscious listening biases can explain what we take away from conversations and then how we apply what we hear, which can lead to misallocated time and resources due to misunderstandings.
If we want to create more valuable, collaborative and innovative conversations, we need to put more energy into how we listen than how we speak.
2. Devote time and money towards formal listening training.
Research shows that people habitually listen to and for different things and that’s why we walk away from conversations and meetings with completely different take-aways of what’s been said.
In 2010 it was estimated that 11 million meetings happen daily in the US (3 billion per year). What if we were able to communicate very clearly in our meetings so that we didn’t have to spend 17.5 hours of our workweek clarifying miscommunications? What if we left meetings with every member of the team sharing a common understanding of intended outcomes and specific deliverables? That would allow us to be accountable to each other without having to spend valuable time with rework.
Every one of us has a unique listening style that determines what we tend to listen to and for, what we tend to miss, and what might have us shut down and stop listening altogether. In the context of a meeting, if we are all paying attention to different things, we are missing others. When information has to be repeated, the time of all group members is wasted. In a 6-person team, for example, repeating 5 minutes of information wastes 30 minutes of work time.
The ECHO Listening Profile is one tool of many that can be used in training and development to help teams better understand how to communicate more effectively, making more efficient use of time and resources, while reducing stress in the process.
While it feels counterintuitive, I encourage companies to “slow down to speed up.” Take the time to invest in formal listening training to improve the other half of communication within your organization, then notice what happens to the bottom line.
By Allison O'Brien
We live in polarizing times. You’re either on my side, or you’re not. You agree with me, or you don’t. You get it, or you’re one of “them.”
Whether it’s at home or in the workplace, when we’re faced with differences in opinion, something happens in our brains that makes it almost impossible to truly listen and learn from one another. In these moments, we actually have a physiological response in our neurochemistry that prevents us from being open to different perspectives. We’re unable to set aside our biases to collaboratively create solutions we couldn’t have come to on our own.
When we disagree, our brain perceives that different viewpoint as a threat. That threat triggers a response from the part of our brain that is designed to guarantee our safety, the amygdala. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it sacrifices accuracy for speed. Unfortunately, it can’t distinguish between a real threat, like someone coming at us with a knife, and a social threat, like our boss dismissing our idea in front of the rest of the team. When we’re in the midst of that biological reaction due to a perceived threat, listening stops. We can’t reason, discern truth, or make clearly informed decisions when we’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack.
In order to regain our ability to listen, we need to recover the thinking, reasoning, and discerning part of the brain with the intention of listening to learn. Coming to mutual understanding in the midst of disagreement is a three-step process requiring a deep commitment to genuine curiosity.
Step 1: Identify the facts
Start with what you agree on. Identify the circumstances that are indisputable and mutually observable. If you are arguing about a fact, it’s not a fact; it’s an opinion or an explanation. Get clear on the undeniable facts.
Step 2: Seek their viewpoint
Stop talking! Before sharing your own viewpoint, regardless of whether you “know” the answer and are “right,” ask for their point of view. Don’t speak until they finish completely. Ask questions to clarify. Be so open to their perspective that it might actually change yours. Go into every challenging conversation hoping that you will learn something that will change your mindset.
Step 3: Share your viewpoint
Consider what you’ve learned. Did their opinion enhance yours? Did you gain insight that would allow your viewpoints to come together to create something that didn’t exist in exclusion of the other?
We know that as stakes get higher, the consequences of the decisions we make are greater. We can’t make smart decisions together if we can’t manage our emotions when we disagree. If we have a critical collaborative decision to make, we have to commit to listening to learn. It requires a commitment to curiosity, the root of deep-seated learning. How willing are you to be deeply curious when viewpoints differ?