The power of deeper listening: 7 skills which unlock potential

A chance friendship is struck up by two women over the washing up in a church hall, and something about the quality of their conversation eighteen months later allows one of them to admit something she has kept hidden for many, many years – her holocaust experience in Auschwitz.

Over the coming years she is able to give voice to those long buried experiences, to connect with thousands of younger people about respecting our fellow humans and unleash a body of deeply moving work including an autobiography and poetry. All this from one person asking and listening.

Good listener

It took enormous courage for Iby, who took part in the recent BBC Listening Project, to re-live those darkest most painful years. But it also took courage from her friend Carolyn to ask the right questions and truly listen, however difficult and shocking those answers must have been.

Why is this deeply personal story relevant at work? It’s relevant because too often we talk too much or gloss over the important and potentially eye-opening thoughts, feelings and ideas of our colleagues that lie beneath the surface. We miss the invitation to open up someone’s potential for development and self-knowledge.

Generative thinking

If we spend time more time deeply and respectfully listening to people, we can facilitate their most generative thinking, establish trust and connection, and allow empathy and understanding rather than make assumptions and give our own advice.

Developing this ability to listen and support another person’s thinking processes is a more synergistic and democratic approach to workplace relationships than you find in more traditional settings. It requires a paradigm shift in what both leaders and peers can achieve up, down and diagonally across an organisation.

Nancy Kline’s influential work on the Thinking Environment suggests that the behaviour in the listener is “more important than IQ, education, experience or background in the thinker”.  By holding the space for people to resolve their own problems and arrive at their own insights we can be more emotionally intelligent and effective colleagues, peers and leaders.

I have witnessed complete strangers employ just a few of these skills and unleash surprisingly innovative and insightful solutions to issues they have been grappling with at work. Try them out and see what works for you.

Seven skills which can help you develop deeper, more generative listening relationships:

  1. Spot the invitation – the pregnant pause or tone of voice which signals that a person might be willing to share their thoughts or explore an idea with you
  2. Check your environment is a comfortable and safe place to have the discussion
  3. Turn off your back seat driver, the voice inside your head that has the answers and knows the best way to fix this issue. Hold those thoughts until the individual has run out of their own steam and needs your input
  4. Go over to the other side and really listen to the story from their perspective, rather than your own. Imagine what it’s like for them, and don’t overlay the situation with your own assumptions
  5. Ask curious, open questions which start with a What or How rather than Why which often leads people to judge over analyse or close down their own thinking
  6. Silence is golden. I once heard an interviewer say he allowed five seconds before he asked his next question,  because the real gems often come after a pause for thought
  7. Know when the moment is over and you have gone as far in supporting the other person’s exploration as you can. It may be time to lighten the mood, offer some of your own feedback and ideas or return to the process in another time or place.

What else do you notice about the conversations which allow others to do their own quality thinking?

 Acknowledgements and resources:

Christina Breene for her inspiration in writing this article and pointing me to the Listening Project on Radio 4

To bring more creative thinking and problem solving into your team or organisation see Generate Coaching Partnership

 Photocredit: Quinn Dombrowski, Creative Commons

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