when you listen, what are you thinking?  

Heron by the side of the water listening to its world

newsletter #39 | 20-November-2018

Listening is a skill that isn’t often taught. People usually become interested in learning the skill when they hear the phrase, “When you are ‘listening,’ usually you are thinking of what to say in response.”

I begin the series on Listening Deeply with emphasis on awareness: self-awareness and awareness of the types of things another person is saying. In the self-awareness category, I particularly want to help people notice the volume of their inner thinking and whether it drowns out the meaning of what another person is saying.

Notice Your Reactions
It’s human to have emotions. You can’t stop them from coming, just like you can’t stop the weather. But you can be prepared and notice when you have a reaction to something you hear. Major or minor, channel that reaction away. If you ignore it and let it “rain” all over you, it will distract you from hearing what another person is saying.

I write more about reactions in Helping Each Other Treat People with Respect and Hate Speech in Research.

Clear Your Mind of Questions
Instead of probing like you would in an interview, stop thinking of what you would like to know. Don’t think of yourself. Don’t demonstrate what a well-versed conversationalist you are. Let go of your vast experience in whatever topic is mentioned. Bring a beginner’s mind, because every single thing this other person is trying to communicate is new to you–because it is coming from their perspective. Let them tell you.

Follow with Rapt Attention
If you become skilled in above items, then your mind will be freed to follow another person’s thinking. You’ll be able to focus all your attention on what they are trying to communicate, making sure you understand what they mean with a few clarifying questions or micro-reflections. You will never choose a new subject to discuss; instead you’ll keep to the topics this other person brings up. There is rich depth here. Understanding their perspective at depth will be a revelation to you, in many ways.

Want to learn how to listen deeply? Look into my advanced training series online, or schedule a workshop at your organization, set up a remote-instructor workshop, or attend a workshop at a conference. I also offer individual coaching based on your real listening session recordings.

There are two different kinds of empathy that are used in listening. One is “affective” and the other “cognitive.” Here are definitions and how they apply to deep listening.

affective empathy: 
1. Recognize another person is experiencing an emotion.
2. Remind yourself their emotion is valid for them. There is no “should” or “shouldn’t” about their emotion.
3. Offer them a connection by letting them know you’d like to listen to them without offering solutions or judgments.
4. Listen. Stay out of judgment. (see above)

Affective empathy is key in helping peers, direct reports, stakeholders, friends, and family through their emotion by offering to share the “burden” of their emotion. Sharing with a person who is non-judgmental, who does not offer solutions, is really freeing.

cognitive empathy:
Listen deeply, making sure you understand how another person’s inner thinking works. To understand at depth you need to encourage the person to go past the surface and speak at depth.

Surface: preferences, opinions, explanations, statements of fact, generalizations, passive voice
Depth: reasoning, reactions, guiding principles

Cognitive empathy is key to supporting people in better ways, designed to their thinking-style, and across greater breadth of different thinking styles. Cognitive empathy is where we find the seeds for true innovation and support.