“When you say, ‘uh-huh’ over and over like that, I can tell you’re not listening to me.”
Me, age 7, to my mom
It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know when someone isn’t listening. From a young age, we can tell when someone is listening and when they’re simply responding.
When we’re with the person, we notice the lack of eye contact or the blankness in their eyes showing us where their thoughts are actually at. When we’re on the phone, we hear the repetitive and monotone mumbles that tell us they’re attention is elsewhere.
Yet often, what we want most is simply to be listened to.
This is true in our personal relationships and in our relationships with the businesses and organizations we support. We want people and businesses to listen to our opinions, to understand them, and to thoughtfully respond to them.
Instead, people and businesses simply “hear” us.
There’s a big difference between listening and hearing
According to the Oxford University Press, hearing is “the faculty of perceiving sounds” while listening is “give one’s attention to a sound” and “take notice of and act on what someone says.”
As I explain to my clients, surveys, focus groups, and even in-depth qualitative research is often a Hearing exercise – the company develops a list of questions, asks their customers to answer the questions, then tabulates the answers and passes them along to whoever needs them.
This is a transaction. An exchange of information. It is not listening.
Listening requires engagement. It happens during EPIC conversations, those typified by empathy, perspective, insights, and connection.
Listening accelerates innovation and drives transformation. When we’re listening, we’re learning new information and discovering new insights, which enables companies to create and act differently, differentiating themselves from the competition and ultimately gaining an advantage.
Listening takes practice but here are 5 simple steps to help you get started:
- Drop the agenda – Before you have a conversation within someone, identify the 1-3 things you need to learn and leave space for at least 1 surprise. If you go into a conversation with an agenda or a long list of questions, you’re only going to hear what you want to hear because your mind is primed to seek confirmation for your opinions and to reject anything counter to what you’re hoping to hear.
- Follow where they lead – During the conversation, don’t worry about trying to steer the conversation or “keep things on track.” If you only need to learn 3 things in the conversation and you have 30 minutes or an hour, you have plenty of time for tangents, stories, and random connections. This is where the surprises and the insights come from.
- Ask Why – Channel your inner two-year-old (or Toyota Production employee) and ask “Why” multiple times. When you ask “Why” you get personal, surprising answers that point to the motivations behind people’s choices and actions. When you ask “What” you get rational, expected, even obvious answers that you, and your competitors, have heard before.
- Say as little as possible – Follow the 80/20 rule and spend 80% of your time listening. When you ask a question, don’t go into a long pre-amble about why you’re asking it or follow it with a long list of options or examples. Simply ask the question and the answer will come.
- Let the silence work for you – After you ask a question, start counting silently in your head. Before you get to 8, the person you’re listening to will start talking. Silence makes people uncomfortable but it’s also when the brain goes into exploration and discovery mode. And the longer the silence goes on, the faster the brain works to come up with something to fill it. So, stay quiet and let the brain work!
Whether you’re talking to a customer, a colleague, or a friend, you’re talking to someone who wants you to listen, to hear and understand what they are saying. These 5 tips will help you do that and, if done well, discover something wonderful and unexpected with the power to transform.
Originally published on April 20, 2020 on Forbes.com