Two Powerful Listening Practices

It’s extraordinary how we learn shortcuts and habits in everything we do in order to be more efficient. It’s pretty cool. Of course, our practices and habits cause us not only to repeat good shortcuts but also to repeat mistakes. Mistakes we’re not even aware of.

That’s why a great coach – in tennis, guitar, or leadership – can help you identify bad habits and practice new ones. They have you practice – to the point of creating new habits.

Self-taught players, artists, and leaders are most prone to miss the fundamentals and therefore to create sub-optimal practices, the reinforcing them until they become habits. My littlest brother Jim who learned the fundamentals from a tennis pro would yell at my “natural athletic self,” to “get your racket back,” “get your racket back,” “get your racket back.”  Jim, you’re permanently in my head!

When it comes to one of the most essential practices of leadership, almost all of us were entirely self-taught. I’m referring to the skill of true listening.

I offer a two-part practice.

Part one of the practice is to gain awareness of an enormously widespread sub-optimal practice of listening.

In two speeches last week, I drew people’s attention to how many things were going on in their minds as I spoke, causing them to lose track of what I was saying. I suggested some typical versions of those thoughts: “I’m hungry.” “That’s a dumb idea.” “I know what he means, because I had an experience like that myself.” “This guy is so boring.” “Shoot. I forgot to answer that email.” “Where’s my phone?”

After calling attention to the way their minds had already been drifting, I invited them to just observe their minds as I spoke on a random topic for about 1 minute. To be more attentive and aware, I invited them to hold a pencil in their hand and simply make a tick mark every time that they noticed they weren’t listening to me but were instead listening to their own thoughts. Even though I had alerted them to this natural tendency for their minds to wander, everyone still made tick marks. The average was about 4-5 tick marks made during my 1-minute verbal ramble.  So, this is practice one that I offer to you.

At your next one-on-one, group meeting or conference call, just pick up a pen or pencil and make those tick marks. It’s a way to create a new awareness. And as I tell my students, awareness creates choices.

The second practice that I offered to them and now to you is this: each time you note a distraction with the tick mark, simply return to listening. I liken this “return to listening,” to forms of meditation, where one simply notices – without self-judgment – that their mind has wandered, and then returns to their breath or mantra. Make the tick mark, then return to listening to the other(s).  (By the way, practicing meditation is more than a metaphor, but is also a powerful way to practice attentiveness which you can easily translate in improving your listening to others.)

I think you’ll find this conscious, intentional practice of making the tick mark and returning to listening will help you greatly in both personal and professional relationships,

Leading with your best self