Talk less, listen more

18 January, 2016

How to become a more engaged, effective listener

There is an old quote that says “we have 2 ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” The challenge is that the more senior we become in organisations, we tend to speak more and listen less.

Bottom line, it is not possible to be a great leader without being a great listener. Even our Chairman, Adi Godrej, acknowledges, “Till a few years ago, I didn’t really listen to what others had to say. I have tried to change that. Now, I make an effort to listen carefully when a suggestion is made, or when someone is making a point”.

My message this week focuses on how we can become better listeners. Why is listening such an important skill? Why don’t most of us listen well? And what can we do to improve this?

Why is listening an important skill?

Is it that we are just that much busier now? That there is that much more to choose from? That on some level we just don’t enjoy the connect? That we know much more? What is it? Given just how intricately connected and highly mobile the world around us is becoming, if anything, we should be listening much more and much more carefully. After all, we are having conversations with and reaching out to people and in ways that we haven’t before.

As a company, we are growing and becoming much more diverse. Our team members are located across Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. Not just that, we are also consciously building a variety of backgrounds, skill sets and approaches into our teams. This means that the people who we are working with now, are very different in many ways. Add to that, the fact that we are grappling with the macroeconomic uncertainty in the geographies we operate in, requires us to become much more agile. To be able to do this, we need to be much closer to our consumers, to understand their needs and then find ways to delight them. That requires listening. We need the right people on board and we need them more engaged with and excited by our ambitious aspirations. That requires listening.

We want to leverage the diversity of our people to innovate and create better products. That requires listening.

On a personal front, as parents, partners, children and friends, our relationships have probably never been both more deeply connected and disconnected, given technology and distance and just how busy we seem to be all the time. How much time are you really investing in conversations? Real conversations, not quick messages and status updates. And how much of that are you investing in listening closely enough to be able to make your relationships stronger?

“Did you even hear what I said?” has probably been the famous opening line of many disagreements.

How to become a better listener

I am quite sure that many of you have probably experienced what it is like to be at the receiving end of a conversation where you feel you weren’t heard out well. Use some of that memory to introspect on how often you are probably doing the very same thing. This isn’t a change that can be made without you acknowledging the extent of or the need for it. Here are some suggestions on what you could do to start being a better listener:

1. Empathise

A large part of listening effectively comes from being able to empathise. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try and understand why this conversation is important for her. What it is that she is trying to figure out. Why she has reached out to you. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes practice and commitment, not to mention a fair investment of emotional energy. But if you can do this effectively, then it will make all the difference. Most importantly, being able to create this empathy will mean that you will be invested in the conversation too. As a consequence, you will be a better, more concentrated listener.

2. Create the right energy

Think about it. How does it make you feel when the person you are talking to seems visibly distracted and looking all around, instead of at you? It certainly cannot inspire any confidence in the conversation being a priority. There could be different reasons why you are doing this. Maybe the conversation makes you uncomfortable, maybe you are just not interested, maybe you are busy elsewhere, maybe you just don’t know the signals you are sending across. But whatever the reason, it doesn’t create the right energy for you to be listening.

So, set the mood for it. Just saying that you are listening isn’t enough. You need to show it. Be present. Do the simple things that you probably miss out on, like face the other person. Make eye contact and maintain it.  When you gear your body language to show that you are focused and listening, it can make all the difference. Put aside whatever else you are doing. Don’t keep texting or scrolling through email, or rummaging through other things. Even if you think you are good at multitasking, it isn’t helping here. If you are caught up with something else, then tell the other person that you have limited time for talk. If necessary, even reschedule the conversation.

3. (Re) tune in

Given the number of distractions around us, to listen better we really need to concentrate much harder. Some of that will take effort to start with. But keep at it and it will become a habit. Julian Treasure, in his TED talk, 5 ways to listen better, shares simple exercises to help you re-tune your ears for conscious listening to other people and the world around you. Do watch it when you get the chance and set aside some time to try them out. They really are quite helpful:

4. Don’t jump in

Often, we find it very difficult to not jump to conclusions when someone else is speaking. We have heard just enough to decide what we agree with or want to refute what we think is being said. Do you find yourself doing that sometimes? Or have you been in conversations where this has happened to you? Finishing the other person’s sentence, but not quite getting it right? Hold back from making these assumptions. Either way, more often than not, it ends up not going anywhere because we haven’t let the other person finish speaking. Chances are that we are getting it wrong.

In their Harvard Business Review article ‘Listening to People’, Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens attribute this to the science of how and why we think much faster than we talk. “When we listen, we ask our brain to receive words at an extremely slow pace compared with its capabilities. It might seem logical to slow down our thinking when we listen so as to coincide with the 125-word-per-minute speech rate, but slowing down thought processes seems to be a very difficult thing to do. When we listen, therefore, we continue thinking at high speed while the spoken words arrive at low speed. In the act of listening, the differential between thinking and speaking rates means that our brain works with hundreds of words in addition to those that we hear, assembling thoughts other than those spoken to us. To phrase it another way, we can listen and still have some spare time for thinking.”

Interrupting says that you aren’t listening. That you probably know it all, already. Or you just aren’t interested. So, even if you are really excited about sharing your opinion, slow down. Wait your turn. Once you start thinking about what you want to say, you end up switching off from listening. The other person can also tell when you’re priming to interrupt and that will only make them more nervous and rushed.

5. Hold back on solutions

Trust that the other person can come up with whatever the solution is that they need. Don’t be in a hurry to offer yours. Often, all people really want is to be heard out, so that they can think through the options better. Encourage them to do so. Ask probing questions. Make them lay out and analyse the situation, if they need that extra push.

Be open to the fact that you may not have the answers. Listen, with the possibility of having your opinion changed. Put aside your concern and preconceived notions. You will find yourself starting to listen better.

6. Ask more questions

Certainly ask questions, but time them right. Don’t interrupt. Wait for a pause in the conversation. You also should try and ask questions that clarify any doubts that you may have. Questions that can help you build a better understanding of what the other person is trying to tell you. Often, what happens is that one question can lead to another, disconnected from the topic that you started out on. Before you know it, you are on an entirely different trajectory. Try not to let that happen and if it does, bring it back on track. This reassures the other person that you are interested in and listening to what they are saying.

7. Look for what isn’t being said

Even as you are listening, watch for everything else that is not being said. Everything that the other person may not be putting into words. Get more attentive. Non-verbal cues are waiting to be interpreted and as human beings, this is what we are wired to do best. Knowingly or otherwise, there are enough assumptions that you are building basis this in your conversation. If you become more aware of them and look to interpret them closer, it will help you understand and guide the conversation better, not to mention the way you respond as a listener.

8. Play it back

Take a moment to summarise what you have understood at the end of the conversation. It is arguably the most effective way to ensure that you have got it right. So, tell the other person how you feel and what your takeaway is. This is particularly helpful when the discussion has been around deliverables and responsibilities or involves instructions on what to do next.

There is no escaping just how important it is for us as leaders to become better listeners and role model this. It will make us stronger, more collaborative and appreciative of different ideas and viewpoints, not to mention just getting to know and enjoying working together more. So, give it a serious shot. Even if you think you do this well, there is always scope for improvement. And even as you do so, ask around for feedback. It would greatly help for us to learn from each other.


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