“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”― Epictetus (an ancient Greek with a keen interest in arithmetic and anatomy).
Something very strange is happening in marketing.
It’s happening on conference calls, in agencies, across shiny boardroom tables, and in studios and offices all over the world. It’s reminding me of my days parenting a tantrum-throwing toddler. Many of us are getting very confused between our mouths and our ears, and using them the wrong way.
I can understand why it’s happening. People once separated in silos of marketing, sales, PR, digital and IT are now converging around a single, integrated approach to brand storytelling built on customer-centric content.
We’re all doing things we’ve never done before. We’re working with people we’ve never worked with before, and we’re all solving problems we’ve never had to solve before.
We struggle to hear and understand what’s actually going on because we’re too busy advocating for the world from which we’ve come.
Progress can be slow in this new highly collaborative environment.
I’m convinced there has to be a better way to actually hear and take on board what everybody else brings to the table without dissolving into a frustrating cacophony of anchor-less ideas and loaded opinions.
In fact – there is a better way! I’m stealing it from a parenting course I did many years ago on “active listening.”
I learned active listening as an attempt to diffuse my then toddler’s spectacular meltdowns, which involved huge amounts of fist banging, tears, shouting and barely intelligible recriminations. Ring any bells in the office environment?
Active listening techniques helped me to demonstrate to my toddler that I had heard and understood what was upsetting her.
Humans are weird. Simply knowing you’ve been heard and understood is enough to start making you feel better, and not only if you’re a tantrum-throwing toddler. Active listening works on all kinds of people, and a lot of different situations.
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Active listening also helps the listener to clarify exactly what has been said, and to pinpoint exactly what the speaker is trying to communicate.
The approach is really powerful in complex adult communications because it enables both conversation partners to clarify what they’re saying, and helps them reach beyond miscommunication to arrive at functional outcomes.
It goes a bit like this:
When someone else is talking, pay close attention to what they are saying, and how they are saying it. Set aside your own agenda and avoid formulating your response while the person is still speaking.
Keep eye contact, and an open body language – don’t cross your arms or slump your shoulders, also nod and smile to encourage speakers to continue.
3. Reflecting and Clarifying
When there’s a natural opening in the conversation, paraphrase what’s been said or ask further questions to clarify your understanding of their position and emotional response: “You are concerned A will result in B, have I understood that correctly?”
Position your response within the existing conversation, rather than introducing an entirely different approach: “Given your concern that A will result in B, I suggest we might also take C into consideration.”
Rather than assuming you know what’s going on, offer a considered rather than an emotional response: “You’ve suggested A might result from B, I’m proposing C should also be considered, would you say D is an appropriate outcome for all involved?”
The remarkable result of active listening in meetings with partners, colleagues and clients is that it enables you not only to really hear what’s being said, but also to clarify the causes and consequences of those statements and reach some deeper understanding of the issues they face.
But don’t take my word for it – there are stacks of courses you can take to improve your listening skills, and lots of exercises you can start doing at your very next meeting.
On a professional level it’s helped me clarify the desired outcomes of meeting with multiple participants from different backgrounds. On a personal level it still helps me diffuse the occasional tantrum thrown by my now 12-year-old.
On an industry level, it would seriously help to move beyond the misunderstandings, and into a more functional approach to the way we share information and ideas.
And the great thing is, active listeners are really effective when they find themselves working together, because that’s when they really get a chance to move the conversation from, “What are we all talking about?” to “What can we do about it?”.
What are your top tips for improving communication in the workplace?