Believing Is Not Knowing: The Advantages of Active Listening

Now that you’ve examined the 3 Magical Rules of Safe Workplace Communications, and you’ve observed how the A.I.R. Feedback ModelTM can be applied to colleagues in need of feedback, let’s dig deeper into the practice of revealing people’s Blind Spots to them. After all, living by the simple concept of “the more one sees, the more one understands” translates reliably to safe and productive communications in the workplace.

To begin, you’ll need to set your ego aside. No one, not even YOU, is without blind spots. But here’s the good news: Once we become mindful of our own blind spots by understanding how they impair our careers, we can take steps to both widen our peripheral vision and focus our lens.

Once our viewfinder is in-tune, there are two ways to interpret what we see more clearly and accurately. The first is to be honest with ourselves about our blind spots by ceasing to believe everything we THINK we know. The second reflects an old adage about walking in another’s moccasins for a day. For now, let’s address the first one.

The Act Of Listening

Think about this quote:

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Pentagon spokesman Robert McCloskey threw that doozy out during a press briefing about the Vietnam War. Talk about confusing! Well, blind spots instigate confusion because we tend to believe what we “know” to be fact, when often, what we’ve chosen to believe is nothing more than fiction.

This happens all the time, including in workplace feedback conversations. And it’s why Active Listening needs to be at the heart of any feedback discussion. I know, I know. We’ve all heard a hundred times that we should be better active listeners. Many of us even assume we ARE active listeners. Here’s the test: When you read the term “active listening”, does it conjure up visions of you listening intently, using non-verbal signals to indicate that you are following along, recapping, and not missing the speaker’s point? If so, that’s a great start. However, the recapping part must be overemphasized, since we each see the world from a different point of view.

To put this another way, just because I’m listening to you does not mean that I understand what you’re saying. By recapping a point that someone has made helps to ensure that all parties are on the same page. Even if you’ve made your point crystal-clear, I should reflect instead of responding, “Yes, I’m in agreement and fully understand.” That’s traditional active listening at its best.

Click, Click

Now, try to take active listening one step further. Consider Judith Glaser’s concept of “Double-Clicking”, which stretches the term beyond the use of a mouse. When we mentally double-click on someone’s statement, it cracks open the conversation in a way that better illustrates what the speaker means to communicate. As Judith outlines, “….it’s a metaphor to explain clicking twice on words used in conversations to open up the meaning others may hold inside. Meaning is stored in deeper structures in our brain, and as one double-clicks it reveals the deeper meanings held by others. Through double-clicking we can better understand how others see the world, and gain understanding of their perspective, their deeply-held beliefs, and their points of view.”

Double-clicking provides a second opportunity for an active listener to align message and meaning. And double-clicking has a double purpose. Remember that when we’re stressed and fearful (like during a feedback session), our amygdala remains on alert, leaving our prefrontal cortex unable to fully engage. The result is that we literally don’t think clearly. That’s a serious blind spot! Once both parties involved in the feedback can appropriately utilize the power of digging deeper, the neurological message allows our reactionary amygdala to reign itself in. The conversation can then emerge from the fog.

As you think about incorporating double-clicking into your feedback conversations (and daily ones as well), consider these three additional situations, for which I’ve found the technique priceless:

  • When people speak using “he”, “they” and “their”, you should consider having them clarify the party by name. “Do you mean Joe?” This can clear up the inevitable confusion and prevent a stall to progress.
  • Have others elucidate their words regarding time. For instance, when they say they need something done “quickly” or “right away”, do they mean before next week or by the end of the day? Your idea of quickly can be very different from theirs.
  • Acutely explore each instance where the time or formality involved is understated. The words that represent values can mean different things to different people. For instance, “Let’s have a quick chat.” Does that mean a brief one-on-one huddle or a formal meeting? “I have a small project for you. It won’t take long.” Does that mean a 20-minute supplement to your workday or a full-day commitment?

This third situation really spans a gambit of circumstances, as we each have different values which define our world. Summoning every detail, fact, interpretation, and emotion we’ve experienced up to this moment, we create our own truth, which has little in common with THE truth. These combined details constitute as our unconscious bias. This sounds negative, but the fact is, we are composed of unconscious bias, just as we have blood flowing through our body. It’s our very makeup, which is why our next exploration will help us trace back the roots of our biases. A whole new world awaits!