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Why Listening is Crucial to Good Conversations

Our ability to listen and pick on what is not being said is a component of good listening. 

I sometimes use an activity in workshops where I ask people to pair up and share a story about moment in their life that means something to them. After they finish their partner is asked to identify the underlying point the person is making, and identify what they are passionate about. 

A story I share to demonstrate the activity is about the time I had to care for my sons’ lizards (bearded dragons) while they were away over an Easter break quite a few years ago. Now I hate handling lizards or anything scaly but felt that I could manage this. Except on the day they left one of the lizards was badly bitten on its front leg by a larger lizard and required medical attention. This meant a trip to a vet who specialized in lizards (about an hour’s drive away) and then four hourly feeds of oral antibiotics which required me holding the lizard in one hand while trying to stick a syringe in it’s mouth with the antibiotic. The good news is, the lizard and its leg survived.

When I ask the people in the workshop what I am passionate about they usually correctly identify that I am passionate about my children and will do pretty much anything for them, including picking up and holding a lizard multiple times a day. 

The exercise is useful to demonstrate to the group that we don’t often listen deeply. It is also a gift to listen to really connect with the other person.

When was the last time you listened to someone to really understand what they were saying, not to judge or confirm what you were already thinking or reject what they may have been saying; really listen to their words, watch their body language and develop an awareness of them? When was the last time you focused on them to the extent that you were picking up on what they were thinking, or what wasn’t being said, and maybe identifying areas that they wanted you to help them explore further? 

Listening to this extent is about stepping into the other person’s model of the world. This is about focusing on them, not us – placing our attention outward rather than inward. We all love the feeling of connection with others and receiving positive feedback and dislike feeling judged or being given critical feedback.

Next time you are in a conversation:

  • Focus on what they are saying
  • See if you understand or can hear what’s not being said 
  • What can you help them explore further and see how well you tap into the message of their communication
  • Ask more open questions to extend their (and your) thinking further
  • Don’t listen for the pause so you can respond
  • Don’t think about what you are going to say next 
  • Be less critical
  • Focus on the conversation, don’t multitask

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