Listen up – Mindfully

How effective are our conversations? Do we really understand the “points of view” of others?  Do we address their key issues? Do we understand “their reality”?  Do we clear make our own positions clear? When we interact with others,  are we listening, or, are we impatient to make our own points… even if these fail to answer the concerns of others?

In her book, “The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction”, Rebecca Shafir  tells us, that just a few minutes after a conversation, the average person can remember only 25 percent of what someone has said.  That’s just 25% – no wonder we often fail to respond to the right issues. (It’s a great book by the way …and really opens your eyes to the power of listening mindfully to improve your relationships with customer, colleagues and family).

It seems clear to me that we cannot address the right issues or even ensure that our own communication is effective unless we are able to understand the points of view… “the realities”… of those we converse with.  So let me introduce the idea of “Mindful Listening”.

The goal of mindful listening is to silence the external distractions and internal noise of your own thoughts; and to set aside any “barriers” that you may have so that you can hear the whole message, and so that the speaker feels understood. Mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness encourages us to be aware of the present moment, and to let go of distractions and of our physical and emotional reactions to what people say to us. To listen mindfully we must focus and observe without judging – and yes, it requires practice.

And further, we need to have empathy for the position of,  and the pressures upon, the person we are listening to.  Rebecca Shafir suggests that we need to “get into the other person’s movie” to see things from their point of view… to “inhabit their reality”  – I guess we need “to walk a mile in their shoes” so that we understand their priorities, their objectives and their concerns… if we don’t resister these issues then how can we help to address them?  This is all about empathy.

So, even if you are yet to work on your own mindfulness, here is a quick checklist to improve your listening skills.

  • Prepare… ground yourself – sounds deep doesn’t it? Yet to be ready to converse you need to set aside all the chatter in your own mind.  I mean the thoughts and emotions you are preoccupied with: worries, hopes, aspirations and emotions.  If you have had a disagreement yesterday or even a big win – or if you are apprehensive about some up-and-coming event – whatever it is you have to set it aside.  How can you concentrate on what someone is saying if your mind is elsewhere?  Try a simple breath mediation to clear you mind: breath slowly and count you breaths;  and if your mind wanders… as that is what minds tend to do… then restart from one again.
  • Be present – focus on the conversation – have time and eliminate external distractions – phones, interruptions or screens.
  • Listen… Allow the other person to say what then want to say – and try not to react emotionally or  defensively… just listen to their points of view.  Maybe probe by asking for more: what is their opinion, how do they feel, or ask for an example… so that you can read the bigger picture. Hold back on the impulse to jump in and fix their issues… you may find things are deeper than you think.
  • Empathise…  objectively reflect on why they may be saying what they are saying.  They may stressed, be tired, unwell, conflicted, angry, frustrated, apprehensive, worried or even frightened.  Are they being open their motives – they may have personal issues or values or reasoning that they think you may not care to hear.  Ask yourself what is driving their statements?  IF you can understand their point f view then you may decide it is valid or you may be able to provide reassurance or persuasion to address any underlying concerns.
  • Be clear and succinct… if you have an issue to raise then state it clearly and suggest how you think it might be best to proceed – so that you can get their input – again listening carefully to what they say and their reasoning.  Don’t be impatient to make your own statements – as this impatience may prevent you from “hearing what they are saying” and reading their non-verbal cues.
  • Observe your own cues… listen to your own speech and the non-verbal cues you are sending out.  If you project the wrong attitude or mood you may inhibit conversation. Do not appear distracted – look at them as they talk. 

Of course none of this means that you can’t be clear or assertive if that’s what the situation requires –  yet most people will accept decisions with grace if they feel they have been listened to.

It is great if you are someone with the ability to say the right thing, at the right time, to the right person to achieve your objectives – but first you must understand the issues that must be overcome  if you are to be successful.  So listen up… Mindfully.

Psychological Safety

I have been reading Matthew Syed’s new book “Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking”.  It’s a great book showing how many groups often lack diverse views (“cognitive diversity”) and are therefore prone to collective blind spots; and how “game changing” innovations often require the recombination of ideas from different fields… which in turn necessitate input from those with diverse knowledge and experience. (Here)

Further, Syed explains, that of the many dynamics that can frustrate such “open thinking” is the way that leaders can dominate – which may inhibit team members from making contributions that could appear counter the position of the leader – I won’t spoil the book further as Syed explains it all beautifully.

This type of scenario demonstrates a lack of “psychological safety” – and such a lack of psychological safety can prevent team members from speaking up even in life threatening situations… or may make them fearful of making errors.

Here’s a definition: Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In “psychologically safe teams”, team members feel accepted and respected.

One of the traits of a “mindful leader” is that they have increased openness and empathy – so that they may listen to the views of others and may consider opposing points of view in an open and objective way… and even reflect on what may lie behind a colleague’s comments and actions – especially if they process a point of view that the leader may have overlooked or may never have been exposed to.   A mindful leader should not be defensive – but grateful for such contributions which may or may not cause them adjust their thinking.  The important issue is that team members should be encouraged to contribute and not feel inhibited.  (I have written before how such “surface acting” – the need to suppress your own views in order to conform – causes employees to have very low job satisfaction (here).

Research has shown that teams with mindful team-members are more effective and more likely to collaborate towards achieving team goals – and now we can see that such teams, with empathy and openness, exhibit increased psychological safety and therefore leverage the inputs from the whole team…  eliminating blind spots and increasing buy-in.

Even if a leader is dominant –  and not at all mindful – then in some situations safety may require that the concerns of team members are shared; so even the most dictatorial leader should regularly ask each member of his team about any issues that have arisen so far…  and especially to share any concerns they may have about the future of the enterprise.  It doesn’t fix the leadership style – but it could save lives.