A CEO recently asked her social media connections about when it’s appropriate to interrupt someone who’s speaking. I love her courageous inquiry into whether it’s ever OK to interrupt, and it prompted some thinking from me about listening.
I believe all good communication originates with the communicator. To be effective in our communication – and I think listening is the silver bullet in effective communication – we first have to take a look inward. It seems to me that’s just what my CEO friend is doing. Love that.
So, in the case of when and whether to interrupt someone, I’d back things up and ask myself two questions: What kind of listener am I? And, What’s my intention for this conversation? I’d also contemplate conscious timing.
First, we all have preferred listening styles. Becoming aware of my default approach to listening can help me tune into the dynamic I’m creating in the conversation. It also helps me see that I have other choices.
For example, I’m a task-oriented listener. I listen to find out what I have to do as a result of this conversation. I’m also content-oriented and can get judgmental and distracted if I perceive inaccuracy in what the other person is saying. It sounds like my CEO friend might be more of a time-oriented listener. She wants to get to the point.
Each of these listening types has an upside (a time-oriented listener can be very efficient) and a downside (a task-oriented listener can miss the big picture). We can learn to maximize the positives and work to reduce the less-positive consequences of our listener type by appreciating and even adopting some of the other listening approaches.
Once I have an awareness of my listening preference, I can more easily address the second question: What’s the intention for this conversation?
Sometimes conversations are about getting things done – they’re about planning, coordinating and taking action. Sometimes, though, they’re about exploring – about going into new territory together to poke around and making discoveries together. Sometimes they’re a little of both.
Before things get rolling, ask the other person what it is that she wants to talk about. Is she focused on accomplishing a task or a project? Does he want to talk about a workplace issue that might involve discussing various office relationships and personal emotions? Do they want to run a new idea by me?
Conversations for action often benefit from efficiency. If the topic is how to get something done, and I know I have a propensity for time-oriented listening, I can use it to my advantage. I can let the person know that I may jump in to help us stay focused on the task at hand so that she can get back to working on it.
The exploratory kind of conversation – a conversation for possibility – needs more time and space. These conversations may ask me to cultivate different listening styles that will better serve me and my team in this situation. We can all learn to listen in a way that allows others to express their genius most naturally.
For both types of conversation – for action and for possibility – I’m a fan of conscious timing. Time is a precious resource that we can never reclaim. When it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s our responsibility to use it wisely, and to know that when people give us their time, our highest and best action is to respect that.
One aspect of conscious timing is scheduling. If I recognize that I can’t listen with intention and focus when someone wants to talk to me, I might ask to postpone the conversation – even a few minutes – until I know I can be present.
The other side of conscious timing for conversations has to do with their duration. I like setting time limits on conversations and committing to being present for that time. And I let the other person know by saying something like, “I have about 15 minutes to talk about this. Does that work for you? Shall we give it a go and see what we can get done?”
If the conversation can’t be completed in the time allotted, I can always extend it or set another date to pick up the conversation. My husband and I have been having a certain conversation for possibility for well over ten years!
It’s not always easy, but better listening can be learned. Get to know your preferred listening type as well as what’s wonderful and not so wonderful about listening that way. Maybe you can explore another listening type to expand your range in this critical leadership tool. And learn to distinguish the types of conversations you’re having. Then you can set guidelines for yourself and others to make those conversations as productive and meaningful as possible.
The work I do in Authentic Communication rests on three principles: BE, LISTEN and ACT. We start with self-awareness (BE) before turning our attention to the other with focus, intention and curiosity (LISTEN), and then we take mindful action for effective, productive and authentic communication (ACT). LISTEN is the central principle of Authentic Communication because it is so vital for leadership and teamwork.
I’d be delighted to have a conversation with you about how to build listening skills for yourself, your team or your organization.
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