Monday, July 18, 2016

Good Listening 101

Psychotherapists often tout their superior listening skills. Psychoanalysts in particular consider themselves to be excellent listeners. After all, they do not speak, do not interrupt very often and retain much of what they have heard.

On the other hand, they always seem to assume that you are not saying what  you really mean and thus that most of what you are saying requires interpretation.

And yet, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman offer a useful corrective to these notions in the Harvard Business Review. They show what ought to be going on when you are listening to someone, especially when you are seeking to make a connection with the person. And, most especially, when you are trying to help the person to solve a problem.

For the record, the authors do not relate their findings to the practice of therapy or even of psychoanalysis. They were, I assume, leaving the question open… for me.

Were you to ask a therapist what constitutes good listening, he would reply that a good listener does not talk very much, but makes facial expressions and strange sounds that pretend to show interest. He can even repeat what the other person has said, word for word. In time, the therapist will offer an interpretation that shows the true, hidden meaning of what his patient has been saying. One might say that failing to take someone at his word is disrespectful… and one would be correct to say so.

Management theory tells us that these are not effective listening skills. When you exit a therapist’s office and enter the world of business, when you begin to engage with reality, you cannot get away with such ideologically-driven childishness.

What did the researchers discover?

First, good listeners engage actively with their interlocutors. They ask questions, seek out more information and even more clarity.

The authors write:

… people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to  want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.

Second, good listeners give face… or, as the authors put it, they enhance the other person’s self-esteem. This means that good listeners do not criticize or complain, and do not pretend to be passive receptacles. If your interlocutor feels respected he will be more likely to express himself openly and to address the questions that need to be addressed. If he feels respected by you he will be more likely to respect whatever you have to say. He will not feel that he needs to defend himself or to justify his existence.

Good listeners are not arguing. They are not competing. They are trying to get along with you, to connect with you… with the best you have to offer.

They are not trying to catch you in an error. They are not telling you that you are not saying what you really mean. They are not trying to pry into matters you would prefer not to discuss.

 The authors explain:

In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.

Good listeners also offer suggestions about how to solve a problem. Or else, how to look at the problem from a different perspective. One notes, with some chagrin, that therapists insist that they are not in the problem-solving business. They are in the get-in-touch-with-your feelings business. Presumably, they believe that problems solve themselves, not because you have a different perspective on reality, but because you feel differently about it.

The authors explain:

Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. This finding somewhat surprised us, since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that “So-and-so didn’t listen, he just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” Perhaps what the data is telling us is that making suggestions is not itself the problem; it may be the skill with which those suggestions are made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. (Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.)

Given their gift for metaphor, the authors declare that good listeners are more like trampolines than sponges. You can bounce ideas off of them. They do not suck all the life out of your discourse. They are not just passively absorbing your words, but are actively engaging with them. And they do not make you feel drained. They make you feel that you can ascend to new heights.


Dennis said...

One is not there to solve other people's problems! One is there, if asked, to assist them in solving their own problems.
I am not sure why, but I used to have a number of women at work tell me their problems and ask my advise. I guess they realized that I would not divulge anything they told me. A few well thought out questions that allowed them to solve or at least to deal with their problems worked best for me.
I suspect that most of the problems we face in the world comes from thinking it is our job to help others without really asking the question as to whether they desire our help or not and in what manner. Each of us desire to be a fully functioning adult able to meet the challenges of the world. Each time someone steps into save us from ourselves that someone takes away the ability to feel good about themselves. One does no good by making others dependent upon the state and in essences telling them what they can or cannot do. This is not love, but a suffocation of a person's soul. It is not about feeling good! It is about doing good at the right time and place when doing whats required is asked for.

Leo G said...

LOL. All the researchers had to do was come to a meeting between myself and some homeowners.

This has been advice handed down in the trades forever. Watch your client as you describe what you are going to do, or what device you are going to install and why. The ones nodding their heads and making non-committal grunts are lost. The ones asking intelligent questions are following.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: First, good listeners engage actively with their interlocutors. They ask questions, seek out more information and even more clarity.

I like to ask questions, but I've found some people don't like my questions, perhaps specifically some women. I looked into the dynamic and I found basically the speaker was interested in me validating what she was saying. She wanted her point of view supported, that her feelings were right, while I was trying to help put her concerns into a wider context, especially if the context was the yet unknown point of view of someone else she was gossiping about.

I also found sometimes my questions were slightly deceptive, at least my goal of asking questions was to slow things down and avoid judgment upon a situation, hoping more time and more information will help bring a better interpretation than the gut reaction I don't like.

I've wondered about that validation skill that I seem to lack. I seem to assumes a person believes what they're saying, so they don't need me to agree or disagree. But I guess I'm listening for facts to build up a model of a problem while I discount feelings, or negative feelings specifically. That is, I register them as neutral and temporary facts if I can, in myself or others. I think more truth comes from contrasting feelings than wallowing in them.

Here's an example article from a therapist. I don't discount the message or goal. Such skills are simply not in my comfort zone.

If I were do do this reflective listening process, I feel like I'd have to do too much guessing, and questioning things that should be obvious to most people, but are not to me, not in real time, and I'll just make the other feel worse by doing such a poor job.
Validation is a powerful communication skill. Its usage can dismantle power struggles, resolve arguments, and build deeply trusting relationships. Technically, validation is an advanced skill, because it builds upon the more basic skill of "reflective listening". While reflective listening is frequently taught in communication workshops or classes, validation is less well understood, even by many professional marriage counselors.

Validation is called for when reflective listening fails to be enough to help a speaker feel truly understood. Before delving into more about validation, however, a review of reflective listening is in order.

Reflective Listening

The goals of reflective listening are several:

1. To facilitate the expression of someone else's feelings.
2. To enhance a speaker's problem-solving ability by helping them move through "stuck" feelings; and
3. To generate a feeling of warmth and understanding between listener and speaker.

The technique of reflective listening is deceptively simple to describe, and challenging to master. The listener must identify the primary feelings the speaker is having and then reflect back that understanding with an empathetic tone.

While reflective listening is arguably the single most important communication skill taught, sometimes the technique falls short of its goals. When the feelings expressed are quite strong, or the speaker carries some doubt or shame about their feelings, a neutral reflection by the listener can miss the mark, even if the feeling reflected is accurate and the tone is empathetic.

DeNihilist said...

Hey Stuart, wondering if you have seen this yet?

Ares Olympus said...

DeNihilist, congratulations! You've discovered online tabloids, sort of like The Onion, except a few more people think it has some basis in verifiable reality.

Well, there's one full name shared, Lori Zaslow, of, so perhaps they needs more business, and the article was written as a secret advertisement for deprived parents who want to be depraved.

The article author, Doree Lewak, also just wrote one about outspoken Ginsberg, and hope someday to be able to say whatever she thinks too, but until then she's got to play nice so she can keep the paychecks coming.
...Wildly inappropriate and unfiltered as she is, I have to give RBG credit for ranting whenever she pleases. It’s particularly liberating for a woman of a certain age to finally feel free — especially after a lifetime of implied societal constraints that force her to bite her lip more times than she can remember, choking on the blood of restraint while she does it.

You hold it in for so many years, you can sometimes almost forget you actually have an opinion.

Sure, I can’t wait for the world to eat my words one day. When I’m an old unbridled bag of bones like Bader, I’ll happily unshackle myself from the (real or imagined) court of public opinion that holds us all back from our unfiltered thoughts — because the only opinion that should really matter is one’s own.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @July 18, 2016 at 3:56 PM:

"I like to ask questions, but I've found some people don't like my questions, perhaps specifically some women."

Goodness, I can't imagine why. You're a real catch.

Recruiting Animal said...

Whoever decided that you can help people by sitting there and staring at them when they have problems and are too shy to talk was obviously crazy and yet many mothers have been proud of their sons for becoming great professionals and doing just that.