"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."
- Robert McCloskey
If you've ever found yourself shaking your head and
saying "They just don't get it." and "I may as well
be talking to a wall." Then it might be time to take a
look at your own listening skills.
"Listening?" you respond, "THEY'RE the ones not
LISTENING." Really? If you're the boss or if you
have a specific agenda that you want understood,
who should be the better listener?
Miscommunication is often the product of the
unconscious assumption that others have the same
experience and understanding as you do. In most
cases, that's just not true. Each of us has unique
experience, cultural background, education,
motivation, desires and needs. You and your partner
may both speak English (which, as a second
language, presents another layer of challenge), but
each word is colored by your specific work and life
Leaders, managers and anyone who needs to
influence (especially without authority) has a
coaching role, and coaching requires deep listening
skills, often called "committed listening" skills.
Committed listening is listening to understand
others' needs and desires with the goal of putting
yourself into their frame of reference. Listening
should make others feel that someone understands
them - a deep human need and one of the
foundations of trust.
Most of us have average listening skills. We have our
preoccupations and agendas and we get caught up
in our own feelings and - yes - we take things
personally. Why, then, should you ASSUME a
common language, let alone common motivations and
There are plenty of barriers to committed
* Preparing to respond instead of listening
* Zoning out when others speak, one-on-
one and in meetings
* Interrupting others when they speak
* "Knowing" what you want to
* "Knowing" what you're going to
* Assuming what is meant without asking or
* Listening for confirmation rather than
By listening closely to others you'll discover that
beliefs and assumptions are present in everything we
humans say and do. If you can hear them, you can
address them. For example, how would you interpret
the following statement in a team meeting?
"The problem is that we can't move forward
until leadership makes a decision about our next
Some possible translations are:
* The team has no power to move forward.
* If management doesn't see what we're doing
as urgent, then why should I?
* It is not our job to set direction.
There are many other interpretations, and every one
needs confirmation, but there is much more
information here than is evident from the words
alone. How would you react? Here are some
1. Ask questions without challenging, for
* What can we act on right now?
* What's the best decision that we can make?
2. Ask questions that illicit governing values, such
* What if we went with the best information
we have now? Could we be effective?
* What's the worst that could happen if we
get it wrong?
3. Suspend judgment, without agreeing or
* What is the team's decision-making role?
* How would you handle it?
* What information does the leadership have
that we don't?
Notice, you're not giving advice or direction. By
asking questions you coach others to think clearly
through unresolved issues and to discover the
solutions they have inside of them already. You also
encourage accountability. Giving advice removes
accountability and places it on the advisor.
How can you be a better listener?
* Commit to improve your listening skills and to
take responsibility for full and clear communication in
every interaction from now on.
* "Voice echo" to yourself what you hear as
you hear it without judging.
* At the end of each conversation, take a
moment to tell your partner you appreciate what
they said and then reflect it back, with the goal that
the partner corrects your report until they agree that
* Don't be offended or discouraged by
feedback that says "You just don't get it." Most
people don't communicate well. Allow for that and
ask clarifying questions until you DO get it.
* Keep a listening journal, noting when you do
a good job of listening, and when it goes wrong, why
and what you'll do differently next time.
* Look for patterns that derail you, like
particular people or topics that don't interest
* Answer the questions:
~ When did I listen attentively? How
can I tell?
~ When did I stop listening to the
meeting or conversation?
~ What distracted me from listening to
the conversation or meeting?
* Enlist someone you trust to offer support.
Call on them if you find yourself stuck or unable to
overcome distractions or break inattentive
As Stephen Covey said in the Seven Habits of
Highly Effective People, "Seek first to
understand, then to be understood." Be the one who
opens the truly collaborative dialog and watch your
influence grow with your effectiveness.