By Eddie Pipkin

There’s listening, and then there’s listening.  Last week I wrote about the value of listening to voices different from the ones we usually hear, including the need to make time for deep listening as a part of relationship building.  Of course, deep listening – as critical a habit to practice as it is – often feels like a luxury in the context of our crammed schedules.  Therefore, it’s useful to develop a tool kit of skills for incisive listening, so that even in the dozens of quick conversations that compose our normal day, we are attentive to the clues that people provide about what they truly need, what they’re worried about, and what they’re hoping for.  Remember that moment in the physical exam when the doctor uses a specialized device (the stethoscope) to listen to the hidden inner sounds of your body?  Good listening techniques are like a stethoscope for the soul.

First of all, let’s acknowledge some truths about conversations.  There are some people who will say exactly what they mean, tell us exactly what they need, or bring up any issue on their mind at a given moment.  Those kinds of interactions – especially if we routinely have a lot of them – can dull our radar for the folks who are more reluctant to share.  There are lots of motivations for this kind of hesitancy:

  • People hold back. They don’t want to bother us; they don’t want to take up our time; they aren’t sure they can trust us; they’re not sure that their concerns will be considered valid; they worry that we’ll be dismissive of their viewpoint; they’re afraid that we’ll judge them.  If we are listening carefully, even in short exchanges, we can develop a sensitivity when these issues are lurking below the surface of the conversation.  The key when we sense these moments is to respond to them, not ignore them.  If we ask a sincere question along the lines of “I sense you are holding back something you’d really like to say,” even if the person doesn’t want to go further in the moment, they know the door is open.  From that point, we can be attuned to any further signals and explore them more fully when opportunities arise.
  • People tell us what they think we want to hear. If our opinion matters to someone with whom we are having a conversation – if we are in a position of leadership and they want to curry our favor or avoid conflict – they will agree with us when they don’t truly mean it.  This feels good, so we’re prone to ignore subtle signals that all is not as it appears.  But such misalignment can lead to disaster.  Also in this category, people will paint a rosier picture of their own personal circumstances than is true.  The disaster in this case is that people are suffering greater hardship than we are willing to realize, and we miss an opportunity to offer compassionate support.  “Let me know if there’s any way I can help” is a long way from a conversation that leads to insights about practical options for helping.
  • People obfuscate. They don’t say directly what they mean.  This is a tried-and-true method of conflict avoidance.  Or it can be a way to test the waters to see what kind of reaction they can expect from us if they’re sharing news they don’t think we’ll want to hear.  It’s also a standard method to avoid blame or embarrassment.  Clarity is sanity, so always pursue clarity.  And in this case, the path to clarity/sanity is incisive follow-up questions.  Cut to the chase: if you sense you’re not getting the full picture, ask the most incisive, direct question possible, the one that leads directly to the heart of the possible conflict / unspoken bombshell / hidden motive.  In fact, motive is the underlying secret sauce that defines the obfuscation sandwich.  If we can unpack the true motives of the obfuscator, this knowledge can be more valuable than the unsaid thing itself.  (An additional note on clarity / sanity: I will repeat my admonition that written communication ensures “same page” meeting of the minds.  If it matters, write it down.)
  • People play games. All of the conversational variations listed above can be employed for either innocuous or nefarious reasons.  Often they are a natural outgrowth of low self-esteem or anxiety, people just  trying to cope with their own issues as they interact with us.  But there are times when people are consciously trying to manipulate us.  It’s important to be on the lookout for those (rare)moments and deal with them in a direct, but respectful, manner.
  • People need time to process. If we are fast-thinkers or quick-deciders, it’s easy to lose sight of the reality that many folks need time to digest information.  They aren’t comfortable responding on the spot.  They need time to process and reflect before they respond. Give it to them.  Be sensitive to this need and don’t be a “respond to me now” bully.  That means it’s better to default to the assumption that most people really do need time to respond to surprises, complex data, changes in direction, and emotionally charged news.  If they want to respond in the moment, fine.  But let’s begin with the premise that they won’t.  (This is a tough one because we have usually had time to process information ourselves before we share it with others, so we naturally want them to instantly catch up.  Let’s break that habit.)

For all the issues listed above, the healthiest overall strategy is to be disciplined about building an environment of trust.  People need to know we are safe to talk to.  They need to know we are available to listen.  They need to know that we are sincerely interested in their feedback.  Our reputation is established by our public pronouncements and our private interactions.  We should implement systems of availability to demonstrate that our willing ears are accessible to all and not just a favored inner circle.  We should implement systems for feedback and honest critique that celebrate the value of people’s insights and opinions.  (By the way, note how that paragraph can apply to institutional leadership or interpersonal relationships – such is the value of listening well.)

Specific listening strategies can build our reputation for trust.  These strategies are useful for the deep listening for which we make space and for the strategic listening which can be implemented in our many daily exchanges:

  • Don’t talk so much. We have things to say – often perfectly delightful things – and we have leadership visions to articulate (hopefully) – and we have a lot to get done that we are trying to squeeze into our many conversations.  But the first key to listening is being quiet long enough for the other person to talk.  It is in many ways, for many of us, the most unnatural of practices, but it is also wildly rewarding.  (The less we talk, the less likely we also are to blunder by doing things like one-upping a person’s story with our own, sharing useless aphorisms, or giving unsolicited advice.  As a rule of thumb, all advice should be solicited, unless it’s to our own kids or people in our direct chain-of-command.)
  • Ask great questions. When we can, it is useful to give people space to ramble on (as noted last week, such rambling can lead to eventual revelations), but in a constrained conversational timeline, asking the right questions will get to the heart of the matter.
  • Make notes. This is so counter-intuitive and awkward for most of us, but it is revelatory if we can make it a habit.  Whether, like a classic cub reporter, we carry a little pocket notebook and jot down some notes during or immediately after an exchange, or whether type some notes or “to follow up with” lists later in the day, writing things down can help us form our own thoughts, think of useful connections, and devise further great questions to share.
  • Follow-up. Following up is critical to demonstrating authentic interest in what is going on with other people.  And in a brief conversation – because so many conversations have to be brief in the context of the moment – it is the difference between establishing whether we really care about what someone has said to us or whether we are just being polite.  There are a thousand different ways to follow up: through a note, an email, a text, a phone call, even remembering a detail from the previous conversation when next we encounter that person.  It’s the most powerful of tools.
  • Body language. Even in the briefest of exchanges, give people your full attention.  Come to a full stop – don’t look at your watch impatiently – don’t act like they’re a distraction – if you really are on the way to something else, tell them exactly how much time you will give them and/or how you will make time for them later.  Look your conversational partner in the eye (and don’t be rolling yours, either, whatever they say).  Nod your head to show you’re following along.
  • Get Their Name. Just a reminder that knowing and using someone’s name is powerful stuff.

Phil and I are big fans of Dave and Jon Ferguson’s book, B.L.E.S.S.: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World  (and they also thought up that stethoscope metaphor before I did)We use the Fergusons’ book in some of our own workshops.  They include a great chapter on listening (it’s the L in the title).  They equate listening with love, and they note how profoundly adept a listener Jesus was:

Jesus was the ultimate listener.  He modeled this second B.L.E.S.S. practice for us in amazing ways.  He was motivated by love for every person he encountered.  Not only did he perform great miracles and teach mind-blowing truths, but Jesus also took the time, again and again, to show love in the most practical and simple way: He listened.

The Fergusons share the 4 H’s of listening:

  • History: What’s your story?
  • Heart: What are you passionate about?  What are your favorite things?  What are you a fan of?
  • Habits: What do you like to do?  How do you use your free time?
  • Hurts: What’s troubling you right now?  What are the obstacles and trials you are facing?

I would add one more H to the list: “Hallelujah: What’s one thing in your life that you’re celebrating right now?”  These H’s are essential for deep listening, but they are also very useful for quick listening.  Snippets derived from them, glimpses into someone’s life, connections from one person to another, can happen in an instant.  Just last night at dinner with some friends, I was reminded of this when I asked the young lady who was our server about the large scorpion she had tattooed on her inner forearm.  In former times, I rolled my eyes at all that ink the young folk were getting injected into their skin, but a wise young friend called me out on that, observing that for anyone to take that kind of permanent step, their body art means a lot to them and who they are.  So, I changed my perspective, and what a great conversation the server and I had about that scorpion and its meaning for her.  I wasn’t faking it.  I really was interested.  Even second graders can tell when we’re faking it.  Our faith calls us not just to act like we care for strategic purposes, but to really care (for eternal purposes).

How good are you at strategic listening?  Do you feel like you have well-developed skills for listening closely in even chaotic settings?  How are you at following up on those quick conversations in meaningful ways?  Share your tips and tricks for listening well in the comments section.  We love to hear from you.