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The other day I was facilitating a strategy meeting with a group of executives. During the meeting, I started to notice a familiar pattern of listening that you all have observed in the past. Of the 8 participants, two of them would ask questions of the others in the room, and shortly into the answers from others, these two would interrupt and throw in their opinions without letting the other person finish.

As facilitator, it was my job to redirect the conversation back to the person who was interrupted. During the break, I put on my executive coaching "hat" and took the two executives to the side and shared my observations with them. And not surprisingly, they were totally unaware of their behavior. Upon some further questions and dialog, it became clear that both of them had fallen into a similar trap. Prior to asking the question, they both had decided what the answer should be and once answers to their questions started down a divergent path from their answer, they simply jumped in to prove that they were right.

They had started down the right path by asking some good powerful questions that provided the responders to dig deep for an answer. Their questions generally started with "How could we...."? or "What would...."? And they started to listen, and then stopped.

The problem is that they never moved from listening to active listening. So what's the difference and why is active listening so important? First of all, active listening takes a lot more energy than listening because listening is more automatic. When we listen, what we interpret is based on our mood, our personal experiences, biases, and preferences. Our listening is also impacted by the self-talk that is occurring within us which is a huge distraction. In the situation described, they were biased to their own answers and their internal voice started saying "they have it all wrong, the right answer is..."

So are you one of those leaders who ask a question and then interrupt half way through the answer or do you know someone who is? I would argue that we all have interrupted another person's thoughts. The question is, do you do it enough where it is impacting your team and your effectiveness. Has it become a de-railer for you, which could hold you back from future success?

Here are five techniques to move from listening to active listening.

  1. When you ask a question which is going to lead to a complex answer, listen to your inner voice first. Do you already have your own opinion? If so, before you become rude and interrupt, jot down your idea, and continue listening And next ask yourself, "what proof (actual data) do I have to support my opinion?" Then focus on what is being said, and ask more questions to fully understand the other person and gather additional data. When all your questions have been answered, before you jump in, ask others for their opinion if others are involved in the conversation.
  2. Before going into a meeting or one on one conversation, make sure you write down anything that is currently on your mind that may distract you from staying focused on the current dialogue. This takes practice but the more you jot down those items/issues that can potentially distract you the more time you can "stay with" the conversation.
  3. Be conscious of your mind wandering during the conversation. If you find that you may have missed a point or are unclear about what was said, apologize and share with the person that you became distracted and ask for clarification from the person talking. This will demonstrate that you care about what they are saying.
  4. Take a temperature of your mood and emotions while in an important conversation. If you are at an emotional point where you can't listen without heavy filters, ask for a time out and regroup after your emotions have settled down.
  5. Restate what you have heard to confirm your understanding of what has been discussed and reach agreement of the understanding.

Active listening will provide you with a deeper understanding of a situation and will show employees that you value their thoughts and opinions, ultimately driving better organizational results. It can also impact an organization's innovation and competitive advantage. So the next time you are in an important conversation, remember the 5 tips for active listening.


Larry Hart

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