I’m not listening, but how can I help?


You wouldn’t ever say “I’m not listening, but how can I help?”.  But, this is how we often act.  I’ll illustrate it with an example.  John is frustrated, he isn’t happy with Bob’s results.  John is Bob’s manager and he knows the job very well; it isn’t difficult.  He doesn’t understand why Bob’s performance isn’t better.  John brings the topic up in their next meeting.

In the meeting John asks Bob to explain the challenges he has.  John very quickly figures out the problem and he goes on to tell Bob what he is missing.  He also explains to Bob what he needs to do.  John is excited and believes things are going to improve.

Bob is frustrated.  The things he has tried haven’t worked.  Worse still, whatever he does, his boss John doesn’t seem to appreciate it.  It is clear to Bob that John is out of touch.  Things have changed a lot since John was in the job.  Why can’t he see that?

Relying on our experience can get us into trouble

In the above example, both John and Bob want to address the problem and both believe they are trying to help.  It doesn’t seem that way to either of them.  John’s context is listen, identify the problem and then fix it.  In a simple environment, one that is stable, this approach works well.  Today’s work environments are rarely simple, they are complicated and often complex.  What worked in the past, may not work in the future.  Bob is trying to point out that things have changed and John’s ideas aren’t working.  John is blinded by how he sees the situation and the straight line he is drawing to the solution.  It worked for him so it will work for Bob.  ‘He just needs to try harder.’

Shifting the context

This situation isn’t going to be resolved so long as John and Bob are talking past each other.  If I was coaching John, I would recommend a context shift.  Today his context is listen, identify, fix.  It isn’t serving him well.  A more effective context is to listen with the intention of gaining new insight.

The most important insight is how Bob is viewing the situation.  If John understands how Bob is seeing and interpreting the situation he has a choice of how to proceed.  John’s ideas might be spot on and he can help Bob understand what is missing to help him grasp how to fix it.  Alternatively, John may learn the situation has changed and a different solution is required.  He can work with Bob to co-create a new solution.

The hardest thing about listening is suspending your judgement

This sounds simple.  It isn’t.  The hardest thing is suspending your judgement about what you believe and truly listening to gain a new perspective.  Here is an approach I find very valuable:

  1. Listen with the intention of being curious.  The goal is to learn something new.
  2. Ask questions to understand what they see, what they believe, what they feel and what they think.  This uncovers the other person’s perspective.  What is it like to be in their shoes?
  3. Why do they have this perspective?  Understand the interpretations behind their beliefs.
  4. Play back your understanding and check with them for accuracy.
  5. Two common outcomes:
    • The problem is not what I thought.  A new solution is required and we can co-create it.
    • My understanding was accurate and now I see what the other person is missing.  I can help them join the dots and develop a new perspective.

Following this approach will not only lead to better outcomes, it will reduce the frustration on both sides.  When we truly listen well, it is obvious to the other person and they feel heard.  Sometimes, this is all that is required.  The next time you are frustrated and don’t feel like you are getting through, stop and check if you are listening.  Are you listening to be right or are you listening to gain a new perspective?