Do You Hear Me?

A friend of mine was recently visiting the U.S. from Sweden. While she enjoyed the energy and creative buzz of New York, she found that watching American television had the unwelcome effect of making her feel “nervous.” How so, I enquired. “Well, it’s like everyone’s shouting at each other and nobody’s really listening.” A fairly astute observation, I thought, given the current gridlock of our political system and the tendency for only the shrillest of voices to be heard above the din.

Effective communication is the most important skill in life. But it’s a two-part skill. The first is the ability to clearly articulate our own thoughts and feelings. The second (and more difficult) part is the ability to listen while others do the same. To really understand what the other is saying. According to some experts, about 50 percent of what is said in the workplace is not what is actually heard. Like the prison guard said to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here, is a failure to communicate.”

Much of the work I do within organizations revolves around getting people to hear one another correctly, sometimes for the first time. While most of us learned to talk at a young age, very few of us received any actual training in listening. Most of the time we’re too busy formulating our own thoughts and opinions, waiting impatiently for our turn to speak. As a result, there is no real connection happening, just two competing monologues. But really listening to someone, with your whole being, can be transformational. It’s also one of the greatest gifts you can give to another human being. What are some of the ways in which we can better learn to do this? Stop Talking It is impossible to talk and listen well at the same time. Give the other person space and permission to speak without fear of interruption. You’d be amazed at what you’ll hear when you can do this. In ancient tribal cultures, they passed around the peace pipe or conch shell to whoever had the floor. And only when the pipe was passed, did someone else get to speak. I’ll sometimes do this with a tennis ball during a session with a client where there are many competing voices in a room. It may seem silly at first, but sometimes it’s the only way to silence the chatter. And it has never failed as a technique for people to walk away feeling fully heard. Only by giving the other person uninterrupted airtime, can we invite the possibility of a real dialogue.

Ask Good Questions What people say and what they mean are often two very different things. Leaving aside gender, cultural and language differences, there are many obstacles to good communication. It can be hard for two people from the same family to understand one another, never mind different countries! Where people are deeply divided or deeply entrenched in their positions, it usually has to do with their own unmet needs. For example, someone who belittles others may feel a deep unmet need for respect. Or love. Or simply to have a voice. The key to uncovering the meaning behind the words is to remain curious and ask the right questions. E.G: “I want to be sure I’m understanding you, can you tell me more about that? Can you describe how you’re feeling?” “What do you want most, right now?” You might also try reflecting back what is being said: “So what I’m hearing you say is…Would it be fair to say that…?” When you are able to reflect back the cognitive content of what is being said, you crystallize the message and make space for better understanding.

Suspend All Judgment Most of us listen through a very selective hearing filter, based on our own experiences, bias, frame of reference and autobiography. Our mind is like a busy computer, constantly evaluating what we hear, looking for cues, openings, and connections that bring the conversation back to us. What we know to be true. But truly empathic listening requires that we abandon that filter in order to fully understand another’s perspective. And this is why it’s so powerful. When we can walk a mile or two in the other person’s moccasins, we begin to see and hear things through another filter. Doesn’t mean that you have to agree with that person, but only that you can deeply see and feel where it is they are coming from. You are no longer listening to evaluate or judge. You are listening to understand.

Some of these techniques, when I first introduce them to clients, seem clunky, remedial and time-consuming. “And who’s got time for all that Kumbaya?” But the cost of poor communication – in terms of confusion, low morale, low productivity, cynicism, and general apathy – is infinitely greater than the time it would take to foster better dialogue.

Now more than ever, it seems we need good communication skills if we are to solve our many problems. Even if nothing gets resolved, we will still have the benefit of understanding one another better. And when we understand one another better, we at least leave the door open to the possibility of creative solutions.