The Art of Listening and why so few have it

Just so we’re all clear, I would like to start by saying that I have not mastered the Art of Listening nor am I suggesting that I have become a guru in the topic. In fact, if my wife happens to be reading this right about now, she will be as shocked by those statements as you would in learning that a Double Big Mac is not a healthy alternative to Salad.

Mind-Boggling, I know!

Having said that, I understand first hand how important this is, not only as a skill but as a prerequisite to management and leadership.

This topic has been written about in countless journals, magazines, blogs, books, white papers and even thoroughly discussed in the fields of psychology as well as business. The consensus? We all suck at it!

Have you ever tried to get someone you’re arguing with to just listen to you? What happens when you stop talking? They start up again, as though they simply hit the pause button on whatever they were going to say and when you finished they pressed the play button again!

This is widespread, while I don’t have any scientific evidence I am almost tempted to call this an epidemic based on what I see around me.

Everyone is so concerned with being heard, everyone wants to have it their way, nobody wants to “back down” or “let someone else win!” and this is affecting our professional lives and our personal lives.

There are among us those who believe that they have every right to be stubborn in an argument because “they are right”. That they don’t have to listen, or compromise or back down because they know that the facts are on their side. So they will argue their point, and if the other person doesn’t agree, they fall back on their support structure. In business, this can mean escalations, complaints, filing grievances, etc…

The fall back mechanism is to walk away from the person you are having a disagreement or argument with and recruit as many people as you possibly can to your side, for the sole purpose of re-launching another offensive that will forcefully (through ultimatums, or power hierarchy) get the other side to “listen” to them.

This also happens in personal relationships, and its not uncommon for people to “check-out” or stop talking to one another until enough time passes for them to simply ignore or put-aside their disagreement – without dealing with it.

The term ‘Listen to me’ or ‘Listen to what I’m saying’ has now morphed in meaning to “Do as I say or else…”

If you ever worked with or know someone who happens to be a great listener you will find that they have a specific kind of character trait about them. They are more interested in achieving a win-win scenario, they are not only interested in “getting their way” they want to make sure that the other person is equally satisfied with the decision as they are.

Great listeners don’t come to the table with an agenda, or with a specific message that they plan to enforce onto others. Yes, they may be forced at times to deliver directives from higher up – we see this a lot in business – but they are quick to ask others how they feel and what they can do to mutually deal with this situation so that impact (if negative) is mitigated as much as possible.

This is why it’s so difficult to be a great Listener. It’s because it requires people to be as equally concerned in the other person’s interest and well-being as they are of their own.

In brief, great listeners are not selfish or self-absorbed, they truly believe that life is not a one-way street, and while the compromise maybe longer, harder, and less convenient than your way, it is ultimately the way that will lead to mutual understanding, happiness and respect. Qualities that I’m sure we can use a little more of nowadays.

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The Art of Escalations: Knowing when pull the trigger and how…

Believe it or not, we have been escalating since the age of 4-5 and surprisingly we haven’t become good at it over time, in fact we haven’t changed much since the good ole’ “MOM! DAD! Bobby hit me!!” days.

We learned to escalate when we realized that involving someone else into our problems will result in action far greater than any we ourselves could exert or apply.

This worked for us as kids because it played out as a defense mechanism “I’m gonna tell mom if you hurt me” or a threat mechanism “If you do that I’m gonna tell dad”.

Surprisingly not much as changed as we grew older and moved into the workforce except for added subtlety and sexy business lingo.  Perhaps you have come across this defense mechanism at work “If we have to take on any additional work we’ll have to have a discussion with [insert manager’s name]” or perhaps you’ve heard this threat mechanism “[insert manager’s name] has committed to this being done by end of day, if its not we’ll have to take it up with although I’m sure he’s not going to be happy”.

We have almost conditioned ourselves to think of escalations as a win-lose scenario!

But when you’re running projects and trying to influence positive change – whether at work or otherwise – a win-lose scenario can only get you so far without adding some resentment and friction to the relationship.

The key to escalating without implying a win-lose scenario is to level-set up-front the reasons and benefits of escalating.  For example:

  1. Escalations are meant to move us forward as a team
  2. We always escalate issues NOT people
  3. We, collectively, will make a decision to escalate to ensure we’re all in agreement
  4. Escalations are a last resort after we have exhausted other options within our control

Simple, right?

One of the biggest traps that we fall into is inconsistency.  What we escalate today may not be what we escalate tomorrow, and unfortunately the speed with which we escalate may depend on WHO we’re working with.  Another common pitfall is NOT communicating (to your team) your intention to escalate and that can catch them by surprise and further fuel an us vs. him/her mentality.

By doing this, we lose credibility among our peers when we escalate, even if we’re right in escalating.  When you realize this, you need to pull yourself out of that trap and re-focus on the issues and facts.

Stay consistent and always ask yourself tough questions “Would I escalate this issue if my friend was working on it?” or “Would I escalate this issue if I had a different manager”,  “Why am I escalating this now?” and most importantly “have I explained to my team the need behind this escalation and my intention in doing so?”

The answers to those questions should give you some insight into whether this escalation will result in a win-lose or a win-win scenario.

After all, that dorky tattletale kid may have been right but he always ate lunch alone.