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Be a Better Listener - Identify Your Listening Villains!

In this remote, virtual world of work I have found listening particularly challenging what with the constant noise and distractions pulling at my attention and focus from every direction. If, like me, you work from home with small children I think you will relate!

So, for me and I’m sure most of you:

“getting focused is a daily battle!”

We need to try to empty our minds and be fully present to the individual or group we are about to communicate with.

Looking to professionals who have dedicated their careers to the discipline of listening can be a great source of knowledge and inspiration. I call it the discipline of listening because it does take a great deal of effort, both on the part of the listener and speaker.

As David Hockney says:

“Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.”

And putting yourself out to do it or rather, develop it, has to include being aware of our blind spots when listening. Oscar Trimboli calls these our listening villains. He has developed a quiz that once you have completed it, you will be sent a detailed report. The report provides you with two villains, but I’m going to share just the first one, known as my primary villain. My primary villain drum roll please… is…The Dramatic Listener!

This villain gets caught up with the drama, theatre, and emotion of a conversation.

Now I do have a tendency to get caught up in the story and jump in to let the other person know how I experienced a similar event and emotion. Does this happen in work situations or with friends and family or both?

When I reflect, it definitely happens with close friends and family and as Oscar Trimboli highlights

listening is situational and relational.

It changes depending on who we are communicating with and in what environment.

So, I need to be more conscious and reflective on when and how often this listening villain shows up in professional contexts. Oscar recommends in fact to start noticing this villain in work situations.

It was interesting to read that the characteristic of a dramatic listening villain is the tendency to tune into the emotion, reflecting an empathic nature. I do recognize this in myself and it is definitely a requirement of my profession as a learning facilitator, trainer and teacher. By listening for similar experiences to my own it helps me process and contextualize information. However, the pitfall is that this often leads to a term I know as “comparisonitus:" the tendency to constantly compare our own experiences with those of others. As a result, attention is placed more on myself rather than the other person who I should be giving my undivided attention to. This can lead the other person to feel very frustrated. The report then goes on to outline how I see this from my perspective and it hits the nail on the head with these words:

“You feel that by highlighting some of your experience on common issues, this will make it easier for them. You think you are the pain relief for their problem.”

Now these two sentences hit me hard! I’m thinking of myself when I’m delivering training or facilitating and I do feel sometimes I say, guide and prompt too much when instead I should listen sit back, be silent and let the participants struggle a little. There is a lot of learning to be gained when you are grappling around and really thinking about a challenge.

Note to self, sitting with negative emotions is okay to do for some time, allow space for others to find solutions and try not to jump in with anecdotes and case studies too quickly. And here lies the considerable challenge we face when working in a virtual environment, there is a tendency to want to cover so much in a very limited window of time, which makes this sitting back and being silent very difficult when you have a certain amount of outcomes you want to achieve in the allotted time.

However, if we put aside the “productivity” of the meeting for a moment and really focus on deeply listening Oscar Trimboli’s report recommends this prompt question, which I was immediately drawn to:

“Could I pause right now, and be silent rather than speaking?”

Just to pick up on the point I made about putting aside the productivity of a meeting, by taking time to deeply listen and not jump in too quickly I do believe that you will uncover so much more information about the other people by allowing for more space and silence. By doing this the meeting will be more productive.

I think this question can be helpful for many of us and in a range of situations at work especially when communicating in an emotionally intense situation.

This reminds me of a visual I saw recently on social media of a traffic light where the red light represents STOP the amber light represents THINK and the green light represents CHOOSE so in the context of listening STOP talking THINK of only understanding the other person and CHOOSE the best time to start talking carefully.

As I have reflected on this STOP, THINK and CHOOSE approach to listening it has brought back memories of when I was delivering communication skills training to the newly recruited Singapore Airlines cabin crew. One of the role plays they had to practice was dealing with a nervous passenger. Of course, the absolute crucial elements of dealing with an anxious passenger was to listen attentively, show genuine empathy and give reassurances. What I observed a lot in these role plays was over-talking. In a lot of cases the passengers just needed time to share all their worries and fears and for the cabin crew to not say anything at all. Instead, they were quick to jump into all the various reassurances they could offer. And when they did give them reassurances there was a need to just keep silent while the passenger processed all the information. Remaining silent and choosing the best time to start talking, I think, is one of the most challenging aspects of deeply listening. That fine line between keeping silent a little longer to allow for just enough thinking and processing time and not too long that you lose the momentum of the conversation.

The other questions, recommended in Oscar Trimboli’s report, that I thought were very powerful were:

“tell me more” and “what else?”

allowing the speaker to collect their thoughts and add more so that you can gain a deeper understanding of them and their situation and stopping the “comparisonitus” I mentioned before from creeping in.

So, what steps can you take now to develop your listening skills:

Step 1: Take Oscar Trimboli’s quiz to find out what your listening villains are. Here is the link:

Step 2: take a note of all the tips that the report outlines and select one or two that you will focus on at work. Note down any observations and reflections you have over the week. Review your notes at the end of the week and record what your key learning takeaways were.

There isn’t a short-term fix to developing your listening skills so step 2 will be repeated multiple times over several months if not for the rest of your career!

Step 3: When in a meeting keep all your prompt questions near to you so you are constantly reminded. Keeping prompts at eye level and in a place that you frequently see helps you to keep this question, framework or tool at the forefront of your mind. One prompt you could consider is the listening traffic light:

RED: STOP talking

AMBER: THINK of only understanding the other person

GREEN: CHOOSE carefully when the best time to start talking is.

Lastly, I will leave you with this question to reflect on. In which specific situations at work could you apply this approach to?

If you would like to listen to the podcast episode, click here:

Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes and if you found value in this please leave a review, it means a lot! Best wishes, Lisa x

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