Monday, January 18, 2010

Active Listening

There are good skills that people don't use. AADs, for instance. Sometimes they don't understand the skill itself. Sometimes they don't understand the utility. There are some things that work really well in practice that seem like fluff in a classroom.

One of these is "active listening." It's a very common training- I would hazard that most cops and counselors and business people and teachers have had specific training in the concept. Listen. Focus. Don't start formulating your answers while the other person is talking. Mirror body language. Open-ended questions. Feedback.

It can seem like a lot of buzzwords. It can seem artificial and tricky, too... but that's because of an inherent trap. If you are thinking about the technique, you aren't listening.

It's useful, very useful and I'd go so far as to say that it is THE hallmark skill in talking someone down in crisis, but it's also very useful for keeping your wife happy. There is no downside to getting good at this.

Most people don't, however. They go through the motions (eye contact and feedback and...) but you can tell from the results that they aren't really listening.

Because of ego. Because saying is so much more important than hearing. Because expressing is so much more important than understanding. Because 'I' am so much more important than 'you.'

That last is not just a statement about me, it's pretty universal. Someone close to you gets hurt, you feel sympathy. You get hurt you feel pain*. This self-centeredness isn't wrong or unnatural, but that doesn't make it effective, either. And effectiveness depends on you. If your goal is to feel good about yourself or get attention, then active listening is a waste of time. If you goal is to help people or change behavior or defuse a crisis, then it is no longer about you... and you have to listen.

The people I've seen teach active listening usually lose the audience, especially the tough-guy problem-solving audience, because they present it wrong. "Why listen? To help some stranger solve his problems? Half the time he is the problem..."

Here's the deal, plain and simple: active listening is intelligence gathering. You want the other guy talking because everything he says and the way he says it tells you stuff about him. Stuff you can use. Likes and dislikes and enthusiasms and blind spots and lies.

And every time you talk, you give away the same kinds of information. Active listening (and keeping your own mouth shut) is a supreme tactical skill.

*Yes, someone will bring out the old saw that they would give their lives to protect their children. How few will give up careers to spend time with them? It's easy to say something that will never be tested.


Daniel Ford said...

Are there any books you'd recommend on this subject?

Wayne said...

"To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well." - John Marshall

karrde said...

Another old saw: people generally have two ears and one mouth, and should use them in that proportion. said...

Your recent article on talks a bit more about the process of intelligence gathering, enjoyed it very much:

Anonymous said...

"How few will give up careers to spend time with them?"

I did

jks9199 said...

To actually do it right, active listening is hard work. Just like interviewing or interrogation. It's just too easy to slip into either the ego game that amounts to "how can I top what they're saying" or otherwise get stuck thinking about your response before you understood what was said. I had a teacher once put up a slide that read "I know you think you know what I meant, but what you heard was not what I said." Speaks volumes there...

I have found that working in a foreign language forces me to use active listening skills to be sure I understand what was said properly...

Rory said...

Not really. Everything I've had in this was from classes. the actual amount of material is kind of thin. Good to see you typing, Daniel. haven't heard from you in a while.

Wayne & karrde- yeah, this isn't new ideas. My mom had a crossstitch in the kitchen:
"The wise old owl sat in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why aren't we like that wise old bird"

Anon- That's great. It's not an easy thing.

Jim-Exactly. Just wrote an article on this (even covered using a translator). If i remember, I'll let you know when it's posted.

Ollie said...

This is a nice post with some really useful advice ~ I enjoyed the read.

I have recently come across a model on active listening & it seems to align to some of your key points:

Active Listening Model