By Allison O'Brien
Listening requires commitment and intention, but that resolve is well worth the effort.
We take listening for granted. It’s often something we do habitually, and unconsciously. Think about it, how often do you pause after a conversation or a meeting to consider how you feel; do you assess your energy level after an interaction? When you do stop to check in, you might notice that some conversations energize you, while others drain you. Without knowing the science of listening, we might chalk that up to how busy we are, how well we slept the night before or even how much we like the people we were talking with. However, if we are familiar with the concept of Listening Intelligence, a brief personal inquiry after a conversation wraps up can explain what has us feeling inspired and alert versus sapped and worn out.
Here's what the science says. Over time, people develop habitual ways of listening that determine how they make meaning of what they hear. Listening is a cognitive process that begins with the ability to detect sounds and observe other physical input, like visual cues and body language, that then go through various manipulations in the brain (e.g., attention, interpretation, evaluation) to create meaning. Listening is much more than hearing and knowing the meaning of the exact words and phrases used by the speaker. It is making sense of what we hear by filtering the information through our unique habitual preferences of what we tend to listen to and for. This is why any two individuals are likely to take different types of information away from the same interaction. Although they are hearing the same thing, their unique preferences have them pick up different information. And when individuals leave an interaction with different constructed meanings, the likelihood of misunderstanding increases. This is also why being aware of our habitual filters is so critically important for preventing costly misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Our listening habits determine what we pay attention to, when we disengage, and also influence what we think about, care about, and talk about. The ECHO Listening Profile™, the first and only scientifically validated cognitive-based listening assessment, is the most reliable way of gaining valuable insight and self-awareness into our habits.
When we get to know our preferred habits, we can 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.
The bottom line is that listening often requires hard work. It’s not passive. The amount of energy we are required to expend to understand what is being said is dependent on how easy or difficult it is for us to stay present, engaged and connected to the topic at hand and the people involved. That ease or difficulty is directly correlated with what we mentioned above, our habitual listening preferences. We often put the pressure on others to engage us rather than taking personal responsibility for our level of presence or interest in the conversation. We can even justify checking out if we believe the speaker is boring, doesn’t know what they’re talking about, rambles on, or is too emotional.
If we want to have more meaningful and productive conversations, the ownness is on us to level-up our listening. Here are three simple steps that can set you on your way:
Get present. Understanding brain physiology can help. We are physiologically hard-wired to get distracted. 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. However, we can quickly return to listening by simply realizing we’re distracted and then shifting back to the present moment by asking ourselves, “what is the purpose and intended outcome of the conversation? What do I need to be listening for?”
Listen to Learn. When we’re focused on learning, and aside our judgements, assessments, and opinions, we’re less susceptible to distractions. When we’re interested, our minds don’t wander. Identify what you want to know more about.
Ask open-ended questions. When we listen with a genuine desire to learn, questions organically arise that inspire deeper thinking. Resist the temptation to listen to solve the problem, while remaining open to hearing something that will navigate the conversation towards a deeper collaborative outcome.
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