Four Listening Moves To Get The Best Ideas

The person with the best idea wins. Well, maybe not always, but it sure doesn’t hurt, reports Forbes. 

We all struggle with coming up with novel approaches to projects, people and problems. Creativity and insight can be frustratingly fleeting. What fires us up one day can dull us into inertia the next.

And yet, the issues never stop. There’s always one more market innovation or personnel strategy to develop. Anyone who has spent many years in the same organization knows this well. We succumb to our environment over time, and can fall prey to the path of least resistance even if it’s unfruitful. As the adage goes, if you do what you’ve always done then you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

In my research for The Inspiration Code, one clear finding was that we are most often inspired when we’re with others. While we can get a flash of insight from a book or art, it’s rarely a solo effort. We’re most likely to be inspired from being in conversation with others, whether immediately or as we mull their words over later. The better we listen, the more we glean, thus increasing the opportunity to expand our perspectives.

 So if we want more inspired ideas, we need to work on our listening. At first blush, listening should be quite easy. You say something, I hear you. I say something, you hear me. But we know from decades of research that we’re poor listeners. There are a couple of reasons behind this.

First, we process much faster than someone else can speak – and we misuse this gap time. We fill the gap by using our minds in other ways: evaluating the situation, trying to jump ahead and solve the problem, comparing what they’re saying with our own experience, or taking mental sidetracks that are unrelated to the conversation at hand.

Second, when we’re having any conversation there are actually three conversations happening: the one we’re speaking, and the one each of us is having with ourselves. Our internal thoughts are the scene stealers, often derailing our listening as we analyze, interpret, and judge the person speaking. (Or we simply drift off entirely.)

Nearly everyone can benefit from stronger listening skills. This is a skill that’s assumed, and rarely taught in leadership development programs, even as it grows in criticality in one’s career. According to research, “hourly employees may spend 30 percent of their time listening, while managers often spend 60 percent, and executives 75 percent or more.”

Improving listening doesn’t have to be an abstract or complicated exercise. You also don’t have to use stylistic devices that feel trite, i.e. “What I heard you say was…” We can make subtle shifts in how we listen that dramatically enhance the information that we obtain. When we get more information, then we’re more likely to learn and have insights. With insights, we get fresh approaches and solutions.

The other benefit of listening deeply is we’re more likely to inspire others. It’s a virtuous circle. Great conversations with focused listening are the ones that both parties walk out of invigorated.

Not a bad investment for tweaking a skill we practice for hours every day.

Below are four listening shifts to consider that not only have the potential to inspire you, but also the person in front of you.

Listening Shift #1: Listening for Facts to Listening for the Whole Person

A common way that we listen is to try to determine the facts. We go into a conversation like a police interrogation, asking for the specifics of the events so we can put it all together for ourselves. If you’re like me, you might even notice that you can’t hear the full situation until you have the facts out on the table. For those of us who like to think systematically and logically, the facts help us orient to the larger situation. We use the facts as a frame.

Here’s where this approach limits listening: when we home in on the facts, we push the person talking into the background. We can easily miss the larger picture about how that person relates to the situation, what they are hoping to accomplish, or how they feel about it. Further, we know that facts are rarely pure facts. We remember them through our own filters and biases. How someone feels about the details is often more instructive than the details themselves.

We’re a better listener if instead of zeroing in on the facts, we widen our focus to take in the whole person in front of us. We discuss the facts, but we also listen for how that person explains the situation, what their body language is telling us, and their emotional state and thought processes. When you find yourself trying to uncover the facts, mentally stop yourself. Instead, focus on the person talking. Gather as much other data around the facts as you can to provide a fuller picture. Again, it’s not that the facts don’t matter, it’s that when we overly focus on them, we miss important, and actionable, information.

Listening Shift #2: Listening for Text to Listening for Text and Subtext

In any conversation, there’s both the text of the words spoken, and the subtext that’s unspoken. The subtext may be the feelings of the people, the cultural factors, interpersonal pressure points, or anything else that constitutes the “elephant in the room.”

Sometimes we’re dead sure what the subtext is but avoid it. Other times, it goes right by us.

Conversations where we aren’t brave enough to say what needs to be said are never inspirational. They’re superficial, and leave both parties lacking. They don’t change behaviors, fix situations, or inspire people. No one feels listened to on an engaging level. They are the conversations that we leave and say, “Why didn’t I bring that up?!” or worse, “That was a waste of time.”

To move from listening for text to also listening for subtext involves us first committing to being in the moment, and noticing what’s both said and unsaid. It’s paying attention to the clues the other person drops, picking them up, and probing further. It’s asking back to gain understanding if we don’t have it. It’s also noting the emotional state of the other person, and bringing it into the conversation.  Subtext also includes the history and culture that exists around the conversation, and good listeners train their ears to hear that as well.

Listening Shift #3: Listening for What You Need to Listening for What the Other Person Needs to Say

Similar to listening for facts, we can default to listening for what we need from a conversation and miss what the other person needs to say. We are only partially listening to the other person, while keeping a checklist in our minds that we’re mentally walking through while the person speaks.

When we listen this way, our agenda is the only one that matters. We’re filtering out any information that doesn’t conform to what we believe we need to hear. Of course, that means we’re missing the other person’s agenda and what they need to say. What’s important to us supersedes what’s important to them.

By shifting our listening to what the other person needs to say, we’re opening our own minds to the meaning of the conversation. We’re sharing the agenda, and taking in not only the details we deem worthy, but noticing the value another places on those details. This may be helped by letting the other person speak first to set the tone for the conversation. We may need to keep our input to a minimum, or hold it back until the end. Always, it requires us to not cut the other person off, allowing them to fully express themselves.

Listening Shift #4: Listening to Judge to Listening Out of Curiosity 

None of us wants to believe that we’re judgmental. Yet, we are, and it’s primarily a good thing. Being able to assess our environments, weigh evidence against past experience, and draw swift conclusions allows us to survive and thrive. It’s how we function in a busy work environment, and may even be why we’re good at what we do. When it comes to listening, however, that same ability to make snap judgements can hinder our ability to understand – and show understanding of – another person.

This shift requires us to tamp down the analytical, critical part of ourselves in order to stay with the conversation, and show empathy to the other person. We need this shift when we want to truly learn, and not confirm what we already think.

When we listen out of curiosity, we come in with an open mind. We pay focused attention on what the other person is conveying: the words they choose, the energy they project, and the emotions they portray. We ask questions out of curiosity about what the other person shows us and expresses, rather than simply about what we want to know. We’re not trying to guess or get it right, but to let our curiosity lead the way. We allow ourselves to learn as we go.

The next time you find yourself in the place of needing an inspired solution, start a dialogue and open your ears. And as an extra bonus, do try this at home.

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