Peak Listening — A Simple Trick You Can Apply Today

I thought this excerpt from The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success was worth thinking about.

If you try to improve your listening skills, you’ll notice a lot of discussion about “listening with intent.” That phrase means different things to different people, but here’s how we will use it. Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, one each waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on. Call it “talking past each other,” if you like, it’s clearly a cultural cancer that’s been learned from the endless chatter on talk radio and cable TV, where you will never hear the following phrase from a talking head: “That’s a good point; let me think about that for a moment.” There is no “thinking for a moment,” on television; in fact, every pause is penalized.

Of course, if the speaker is saying something that might be hard to hear – “I hate your product,” or “Why are you so selfish?” all this goes double. Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.

We’d like to see you try something very different: Listening with intent to agree. That’s right: Before you offer an explanation or defense, just imagine that whatever the other person is saying must be true. That’s radical. But it sure is the fastest way to get new ideas into your brain. That’s peak listening. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to divide the world into two categories: sociopaths, who lie without guilt and who really have nothing but their own selfish gains in mind; and everyone else. If you are in the presence of a true sociopath, then all bets are off. The advice we give here is useless. But after you’ve determined that your spouse, friend, co-worker, or customer isn’t a sociopathic liar, here’s a thought that will short-circuit almost every fight you ever have.

The person you are listening to is right. Always. You wife, your husband, your employee, your customers. They’re right.

They may not be 100 percent right. But even if he or she is hysterical and speaking in terribly ineffective language, perhaps even accusing you of things that on the surface are demonstrably false, THERE IS TRUTH IN WHAT THEY ARE SAYING. And rather than defend yourself by finding error in some details, challenge yourself to find the deeper truth of what’s being said. Often, that will require you to dig deep into that 93 percent of non-verbal communication. It will definitely require you to drop all your defenses, and in some cases, it will feel like you are being forced to believe that black is white and the sky is orange.

Here’s a simple trick you can apply today to take a step in the right direction. Anyone who has ever taken a class in improvisation has learned the “yes, and…” technique. Ever wonder what keeps a great improv troupe from falling silent? It’s simple. No one is allowed to say no. Whatever is said, the other actors are forced to accept it and build upon it. This conversational style pays immediate dividends. Instead of creating blocks, or, “stops” to the chatter, it allows group discussions to build on each other. Talking takes on a spirit that floats higher and higher, as opposed to the use of what some called “conversation stoppers” thrown in by negative nellies. These sound like, “I don’t believe that,” or, “what’s your proof for that?” or, often, simply, “No.” Those stuck in a deconstructivist frame of mind often can’t help but bring down conversations. You know them because they often leave people feeling like a balloon has just been popped and its remnants have crashed to the floor. Popping other people’s balloons is a sure-fire way to discourage them from telling you how they really feel; and a terrible way to break out of plateaus caused by becoming stuck in a feedback-proof cocoon.

Steven Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, argues there are Five levels of listening: (1) Ignoring; (2) Pretending to listen; (3) Selective listening; (4) Active listening; and (5) Empathetic listening.