Great Listening: Not Just Sponging

ListeningPeople’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average….While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines….They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”*

Who ever thought listening was supposed to be fun? What could be fun about either being a sponge or being with a sponge? More like something boring we are supposed to do to be a good person – and deep down we pretty much all want to be (at least seen as) a good person. Still, as motivational speaker Steven Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” possibly, probably, to make the thing feel like a more interesting, less deadly, use of our time. And then we tell ourselves we listened. Good for us. Unless we really did listen, and then it really was good for the other and good for us. Good chance it was even fun.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman* did a study of 3,492 participants to identify the differences between great and average listeners. To summarize a bit here:

Four Main Findings

1.     Good listening is more than one person talks, the other doesn’t. It is a dialog. Those who were considered the best listeners in the study would listen quietly but then also periodically ask questions to help the speaker challenge old assumptions, indicating as well that the speaker really has been heard.

2.     Good listening creates an open, safe environment that helps build self-esteem, in a way that just sitting there like a sponge or, worse, being critical, does not.

3.     Good listening is cooperative and conversational rather than a debate during which the listener is gathering information to further his/her own point or agenda.

4.     Good listening includes good feedback and suggestions, which the authors surmised held true more when the other features of good listening were present, so it did not feel as if the listener was just jumping in with his/her own urge to solve a problem.

We see from this study that there can be a lot more action to great listening than we may have thought. But not always. The authors are clear that not all conversations require the highest levels of listening. Sometimes the speaker just wants to vent, and really does want you to just sit there like a sponge, if that’s okay for you. You may even find it relaxing to know that quiet, compassionate listening is all that is needed from you at that time. But sometimes the listener is simply not in the mood, maybe antsy about other things.

So, let’s add to their great piece on great listeners something for the speaker that comes up in my practice a lot – and that is that people are often enough reluctant to ask for the kind of ear they need when they need it. One client** wants dearly to be understood by a man she is considering marrying someday, but is reluctant to speak her concern to him because she believes he may judge rather than understand. The awareness of her self-judgment in the mix brings her closer to being able to speak with him more often about a variety of matters. He can’t be a great listener if no one is talking and, in this case, great listening may be simply an acknowledgement that he heard and understood, absent any what to do’s for which she has not asked.

Now, what if we made it a natural, habitual part of our communications (in work, play, love, life) to ask for what is needed from a particular conversation at the outset of that conversation. When our listeners have a chance to actually consider whether they are in the right space to provide what is needed, all kinds of unsatisfying encounters could be prevented before they even begin. Something to try. Something to practice. Practice, practice, practice, and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

*”What Great Listeners Actually Do,” Zenger and Folkman, July 14, 2016

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.



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