The skill of listening is always a work in progress. I don’t think any of us are masters of this!
We will know perhaps a handful of people that we could call good listeners and those who we would turn to first if we are in need of a listening ear.
In this remote, virtual world of work I have found listening to be an even more challenging skill 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!
This technique came to me while reading a book called "Silence" by Lemniscates an illustration studio of artists and designers located in Barcelona
In the silence, I can hear the waves crashing and
The wind playing with my kite
At night I can hear what the stars tell me.
And in the morning what the birds say.
When I listen I can hear my feet when dancing.
My heart when running.
My legs when swimming.
And my breath when still.
Be still, listen.
How many things can you hear?
Try this now: take a moment to tune into the sounds around you.
What can you hear?
This technique helps you to connect with your surroundings and become present and focused in preparation to focus your attention and listen.
It doesn't have to take a long time. You can do this for just 5 minutes before you go into the next virtual meeting you have as a way to reset and get ready to be fully present and show up as a good listener to the other participants in the meeting.
Julian Treasure talks about R.A.S.A
Showing the speaker that you are paying attention and are ready to receive the message.
The technique I have just shared of tuning into the sounds around you will help you to prepare yourself and be ready to receive the message of the speaker.
In a physical space we indicate this by maintaining eye contact and facing each other. This is more challenging now as the majority of our meetings and conversations take place online. Add to the fact that many people prefer to keep their videos turned off or don’t have access to video for various technical reasons.
I would always recommend keeping the video turned on as it helps to connect with the other person, but I know this is not possible for everyone.
If the visual channel is not available then as a listener you will need to make that extra effort to engage with the speaker so they know you are listening, such as the little noises we make to indicate that we are following along and asking questions to check our understanding.
Case Study: My Accountability Buddy Emma
I would like to share some observations and learning I have experienced with my accountability buddy Emma.
Every Friday we meet over Zoom to talk about what we have achieved in the week. What I notice about Emma is that she often doesn’t face me when she’s speaking but looks sideways out of the window.
I have to admit that it was quite off-putting at first. Of course, in a physical space, if you did this you would think that the person was distracted, or you would wonder what was so interesting about the view outside!
Interestingly, Emma has the blind closed so it’s not the view that is distracting her. It is just comfortable for her and seems to help her think and process. In fact, Emma shared with me that she has experimented with different seating positions when coaching her clients; asking the client to sit facing sideways too as if they are sitting side-by-side. She says it feels that this positioning is more informal and allows for spacious listening, this means there is more silence and time for the client to think and speak.
So receive, in the context of how we are communicating online now is more challenging and complex. I think what the example with Emma shows, is that experimenting and being curious with different seating positions in relation to the camera is vital in how comfortable you feel and therefore how well you can receive and listen to the message being communicated.
I suggest being curious and open; notice if the person is sitting sideways or at an angle and ask why this is, it may just be out of preference and then explore together how that makes you feel, you never know they may not realize that it is distracting for you and makes you feel as though they are not fully listening.
Of course, the level of this experimentation will depend on the context.
In this example, Emma is experimenting as a coach with her client but this would not be appropriate when participating in an monthly meeting with your boss perhaps!
Another aspect to consider is whether as a listener you should be standing or sitting.
As a learning facilitator I have experimented with this in relation to what energy I would like to convey. I would prefer a sitting position if I am coaching someone 1-to-1 versus a high energy group session focusing on persuasive presentation skills.
This refers to the affirming noises you make as you are listening, it also refers to nodding, raising your eyebrows, smiling and mirroring the speaker’s body language and pace.
Again, some of these are only relevant in an online context if the video is turned on. As I mentioned earlier when the video is switched off what becomes extremely important is the affirming noises with the clarifying and echo questions, such as "Ok, so you’re saying that we need to postpone the meeting until he returns, is that right?"
Julian Treasure highlights the powerful word of “so.” Phrases such as:
“So, what you’ve said is…., is that right?”
“So, let me see if I’ve understood correctly, you have….is that correct?”
So allows for us to check if we actually heard what the speaker meant and gives the conversation momentum and energy to move forward.
This refers to the listener being pro-active in the conversation by asking questions. These questions could be to request for more detail and clarify. It’s important to remember here that listening is an effortful skill on both the part of the listener and speaker.
So, what are the key takeaways that you can take from this article to help you develop your listening skills:
Take time to tune into your surroundings and become fully present to show up to your next meeting ready to listen attentively
Look up Julian Treasure, I'd recommend watching his Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better?language=en
Be curious and start noticing how you and others position yourself in front of the camera and how that impacts your capacity to listen and be listened to
And lastly, identify which parts of R.A.S.A you would like to improve on. Take one area and focus on that for a week recording what you notice both positive and negative in relation to your listening skills.