It’s Time to Get Beyond Active Listening
By Dana Dupuis
In the 1940’s researchers began to study what made therapists more or less successful with their patients. The outcome suggested that those who listened more and spoke less were more successful than those who did the opposite. It wasn’t until 1957 that Carl Rogers and Richard Farson capitalized on the findings and coined the term Active Listening in a short book that they published. Some 55 years later, Active Listening is still a well-known term, practiced far beyond the mental health setting where it began. Ask any organizational learning professional or take a peek at the training courses they are currently offering their employees, and chances are, if they are offering any sort of listening instruction as part of their communications training or leadership development, it is focused on Active Listening.
This singular focus is terribly outdated.
Modern brain science has revealed so much more about how we listen. Unfortunately, our training offerings have failed to keep up.
Active Listening involves making eye contact with the speaker, parroting back what they say and nodding in agreement in order to give the speaker the confidence that they were heard. Although these steps may help the listener stay focused, they don’t necessarily produce better listening.
We have learned that listening is about applying meaning to sound. It is where “hearing meets the brain,” according to Dr. Douglas Beck, former Vice President of Academic Sciences of hearing solutions provider, Oticon Inc.
In no way do the steps involved with Active Listening help the brain process sound. While there is some value in Active Listening, we have learned so much more about how to listen better since the 1950’s.
When it was confirmed that listening actually happens in the brain, the approach to improve our listening skills took a turn. When we recognize that no two brains are alike, this leads to the understanding that no two individuals make the same meaning of what they hear. Findings from researchers at the University of Switzerland at Zurich confirmed that both genetics and life experience create distinct brain anatomy, further explaining the complexities and differences of how we listen.
How do these differences impact our workplace relationships and how we get work done?
Imagine for a moment that four colleagues are attending an important strategy meeting. As the information is being shared, one of them is listening for the facts and figures of what to change and how it will make a difference to the bottom line. While listening to the discussion, the second colleague is wondering how these changes will affect the team’s workload. They are already overworked and any additional responsibilities will surely cause added stress. The third colleague is listening and considering how the changes in strategy might provide an opportunity for them personally, possibly enabling them to move up in the organization more quickly. The fourth colleague is listening to the suggested strategy changes and thinking about other possible changes that could be considered. This is one idea, but there are so many other possibilities.
Imagine if each person knew more about how listening happens. How could they ensure the strategy is explored more thoroughly and deeply understood by four unique brains? This type of team listening has huge implications, whether we are considering the strategic outcome of an executive team meeting or the daily interactions of an intact team in the middle of an organization.
How we listen and the varying nuances that create an individual's listening differences is the source and focus of a new type of listening training called Listening Intelligence. This approach draws from some of the original ideas from Active Listening and adds recent research and development discoveries, keeping in mind that listening is truly an individual sport!
Listening Intelligence enables individuals to quickly decipher what kind of information they listen to and for in conversations, meetings, or in their personal life. Just like the strategy meeting example above, there are four different listening styles in the Listening Intelligence model and each one of us has a unique listening preference. You can discover yours with a short, ten question assessment. The profile generated after completing the assessment will help you identify your natural listening tendencies and also reveal the kind of information you tend to miss.
Organizations that have introduced their employees to Listening Intelligence have benefitted from wide-ranging results:
Much has changed since the inception of Active Listening. Our ability to communicate is more sophisticated and the need to listen to understand has far higher stakes. It’s time to modernize our communication training and leadership development with Listening Intelligence.
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