Offer Something Extraordinary at Work – Genuine Listening

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“There’s a big difference between showing interest and really listening.”      Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening

Genuine listening in most areas of life is uncommon. In the workplace it’s rare. We’re too busy – so we think. We’re distracted and fragmented.  Sitting down for a non-task oriented conversation feels like just another bit of pressure.  Too often we just engage in conversation (more like just convey information) so that we can tick off another agenda item on our endless to-do list and move on.

Yet in nearly every interaction I have with people in the workplace, listening is identified as the most important skill in building trust and relationships.  Most people I work with say they need to become better listeners and they definitely want to experience better listening from their colleagues.

Often when I ask groups, “When did you last feel like someone really listened to you and showed genuine interest,” most say they can’t recall. Sadly, too many say never.

So why are we such poor listeners? What stops us from really tuning into others?

The common response is technology. Those devices made me do it! 

True, we are a more distracted culture than just ten years ago.  Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other (that subtitle gives us a clue) elaborates as she points to a story about a 40-year-old woman falling from a pier while texting, We live in a culture of distraction. We have created a communications culture that has decreased the time for us to sit and think undistracted.  And then there is the pressure to do things quickly. We dumb down our communications even on the most important matters.”

Hobbled by distraction and addicted to speed, our interest and curiosity in others can diminish, even with those we care most about. When people are given the opportunity to vent, they often reveal their frustrations.  I don’t need (or want) to know more about other people. I don’t have the time, interest or emotional bandwidth to hear one more story.

Those who aren’t digital natives can at least remember the “intimacy” of communicating mostly by phone. Turkle talks about a 13-year-old who tells her she “hates the phone and never listens to voice mail.”  Turkle explains, “Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks, for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilocks, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they can keep at bay.”

These are sobering realities that don’t portend well for the future of genuine, intimate face-to-face conversation.

In the face of this, people still have human needs – and are remarkably resilient in their desire to connect with others.  I find – it doesn’t take much for people to feel heard.  The wonderful “corporate” poet David Whyte captures the need in his short, but impactful poem, Loaves and Fishes,

 “People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”

Often we simply need information from others. “Deeper” listening doesn’t seem to be required.  But every contact with another human being puts us into a mutual “energy zone.” This isn’t woo-woo stuff. It’s science.

Every interaction is social. That’s the nature of our social brains – the great discovery from decades of neuroscience research. Just because we’re engaged in a very simple interpersonal “transaction” the brain has no on or off switch. No normal or slow mode to uncheck.  We are hard-wired to assess whether our contacts with others are in the reward or threat categories.. This, of course, is all happening unconsciously.

Business has been very slow to understand the new knowledge acquired from neuroscience.  It’s still dividing up business into the world of hard and soft knowledge.  Numbers and technology are hard – emotions and body-centered awareness are soft.

Neuroleadership expert David Rock developed a valuable language for the domains of the brain that determine responses to interpersonal communication, especially as it related to management practices. In his model called SCARF, Rock reminds us that experience is relational– our brains co-exist with other brains.  All of the SCARF domains, (S) Status, (C) Certainty, (A) Autonomy, (R) Relatedness and (F) Fairness are not self-determined but are measured in relational proximity to others.

Even the simplest of human interactions and communication will determine the behavior outcome of these processes. In her article, The Management Model You Can’t Manage Without,” Louise Altman points out, If my brain in all of its complexity perceives that I am not valued (S) unsafe (C) controlled (A) alone (R) and mistreated (F) you as a manager (or colleague) are unlikely to see me behave optimally.

Heart Space

We don’t talk much about “heart space” in the workplace. Too soft. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  The lack of recognition of the new science in organizations and business does not  prevent its consequences.  Heart Math has done pioneering work in helping us to understand the physiological impact of emotions. The myth that emotions are only centered in the brain has been debunked.

According to Heart Math, “the heart, like the brain, generates a powerful electromagnetic field.” In fact, it generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body – about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain waves recorded in an (EEG).  Heart Math studies show this powerful electromagnetic field can be detected and measured several feet away from a person’s body and between two people in close proximity.

Heart Math’s study, The Electricity of Touch, showed that “when people touch or are in proximity, transference of the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart occurs.”

Because we know that emotions are contagious, the outcome of this study combined with the conception of SCARF carries powerful implications for every workplace contact.  We have the opportunity, even in the most basic communication, to “signal” our intentions to others.  

Genuine listening – even a reply to a simple question, “How was your weekend,” can demonstrate the fundamental difference between hearing and listening. Listening, when we care to show interest and respect, can turn on the lights that signal – this communication is different from others.

Genuine listening can ease conflict, lessen resistance and help build trust. It can move people to see what they could not see before, feel a range of different feelings within the course of a conversation – and act in ways they never anticipated.

This kind of “heart-centered” listening is potent, practical and rewarding. So – what stops you from making a commitment to become a better listener?

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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4 thoughts on “Offer Something Extraordinary at Work – Genuine Listening

  1. Thanks, George, for a great article and for reminding us of one of the most important skills not just in the workplace, but in life as a whole. If we can stop all other thoughts and motions for just one moment and truly be open to what the other person is saying, giving it full attention and value, we are not only giving something the other person needs, we are enriching ourselves. Trust and relationships are built on those moments. And new ideas can be born of those moments, no matter whom we are speaking with.

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    • Thanks for the comments Ronnie. Much appreciated! Listening is truly the birthplace of compassion and empathy. While, from a workplace perspective, it’s essential to learn specific listening skills, listening is so much larger and profound than just skill sets. It has to do with intimacy and self-disclosure.

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  2. Bravo George on a beautifully written and very important article. Your opening question to become aware/mindful of what gets in the way of open, relaxed and respectful listening is very valuable. I also find that when I am able to listen the way I want, one of the unintended consequences is how good it feels to me:-). The physiological sensations are subtle and distinct from other experiences.

    Your fan,
    Karen Hirsch

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  3. Karen….thank you! I believe that listening is a way of bearing witness to another’s need for self-expression. An interesting thing has surfaced recently when I talk about listening in the programs I lead, relating to your comment about the obstacles that get in the way of listening respectfully. It has to do with people simply caring to listen. It’s about moving beyond the desire to tell one’s own “story” and shift attention to the other person, to inquiry about the other.

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