Listening To Understand: A Socials Skills Staple Examined

The essential social skill of Listening is rarely mastered, even by those among us who pride ourselves on being great listeners. In my recent article, Chit-Chat Credentials: Sharpening Your Social Skills with Two Distinct Listening Styles, I offered what may have amounted to a wake-up call for many of us by sharing two case studies that demonstrated how Listening To Connect can be a workplace game-changer. And despite its relevance, that article only revealed half of the picture. Let’s take a detailed look at the other half, which is Listening To Understand.

To Understand is to Stand Under

While listening to connect is a necessary first step in interactions, Listening To Understand is essential to getting things done (GTD), or coming up with solutions that are far greater than the sum of their parts (kind of like a successful wine & food pairing).

Where listening to connect allows for trust and safety to grow, listening to understand allows for co-creation to emerge from that trust. Remember, humans are tribal. Even thousands of years into our “post-tribal” society, the brain remains in survival mode, programmed to determine whether we’re in-tribe or out-of-tribe in a given situation. It’s only when we feel psychologically safe that the brain can listen to understand or stand under another’s reality, and it’s from this vantage point that the magic happens: increased efficiency, healthy debate, the capacity to persuade, and the birth of great cultures. By contrast, when you don’t listen to understand and choose to believe that another person automatically sees things from your perspective, you don’t benefit from the best possible outcome.

The Art of “Staying In Discovery”

Listening to understand is tough, because it means listening without your agenda acting as the driving force behind your thought process. This style of listening requires you to be fully curious, so you can understand another’s agenda. In Conversational Intelligence® terms, we refer to this type of listening as ‘staying in discovery’. It’s not only listening but disciplining yourself to ask questions for which you have no answers. To achieve this, use the visual of your mind as a porous object, absorbing information without customizing it to fit your ideas or expectations. Keep some head space open for others to create the picture for you.

In the best of situations, listening to understand results in a co-created new picture. It’s brainstorming in the truest sense of the word, but it’s particularly difficult for three reasons. Firstly, we are often invested in convincing another to agree with our agenda. Especially in positional discussions, we’re programmed to persuade and influence others to agree with our point of view. In ego-driven environments, people become unconsciously immersed in winning the point vs looking at the greater purpose of the match. It’s soul-crushing to witness, because as competition grows, the positioning escalates. And not only are silly decisions made (or no decisions), but a LOT of time is wasted. Instead of asking illuminating questions, we tend to ask leading questions to elicit answers that serve our argument or show that “I’m right!”.

Second, when we can’t bring people over to our side and convince/convert them, we become resistant to their ideas, too, unwilling to stand under their reality, metaphorically covering our ears and singing “la-la-la-la”.

Thirdly, we’re programmed to believe we must arrive with the answers, lest we seem ignorant. Plus, when we don’t have the answers, we’re tempted to fake confidence. This circles back to why listening to connect is imperative, since, when we’re in safe company we can ask questions without feeling ignorant or in competition to win the point.

A Few Good Places To Start

 Consider these four steps to better allow you to Listen to Understand:

-Create a connection with the person for ‘brain safety’ by listening to connect— not to judge or reject. This could entail asking the question, “What’s been going well for you this week?”

-Start asking questions without your agenda in mind. Some of my favorites depending on the situation are, “What’s your idea?” “What are the facts as you see them?” “What will success look like to you?” “What issues concern you?”

-Notice inflections of resistance from within yourself. When do you feel like you’re closing off? Bring it back to “curious”. Ask yourself, “Is it the words the other is using? Is it frustration because they’re not agreeing with me? Am I closing down because I’m not understanding what they’re saying?”

-Be open to influence. When you begin to feel resistance, take a breath and ask yourself what you’ll need to open up your thinking again. Ask that question of the other. “What is your experience with this?” “Help me understand your thinking about this idea.”

Here’s an ExperiMentor challenge for you: Take these 4 prompts out for a ride during the course of your conversations this week. These low-stakes discussions will help you ‘train’ for the workplace interaction that can get botched or isn’t fully leveraged, like a formal feedback session. We’ll begin to strategize for those sessions shortly!