Rewiring Yourself to Listen

January 5, 2015

The following is adapted from Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, by Mark Goulston. Here, Goulston discusses the importance of truly listening to your coworkers, and how you can break your preconceived attitudes towards the people around you.

How many of you think you listen well, or at least moderately well? I have asked this question time and time again, and the general response is that everyone feels they fall into either of these two categories. What I aim to prove, however, is that almost no one really listens, ever. The point of this speech, delivered to business people at conferences, national meetings, or seminars, is to prove that people listen far less than they think, and then show them how to correct the problem and make them more effective.

In order to do so, I create a scenario that they can relate to. I ask them to imagine an office assistant who doesn’t get work done on time and often turns in their work with significant errors. This person becomes defensive, angry, or upset if you try to address these failings. When I ask how many of them can think of someone who fits that particular description, there is an almost unanimous agreement that this person exists in each of their workplaces. Labeled as a “flake,” “sloppy,” “lazy,” or “undisciplined,” this person probably isn’t your favorite coworker.

If this person is consistently not doing their work, what most of the audience admits to is not asking why that work is not done. Instead, they are more content to yell, make demands, complain to other coworkers, or walk away and wonder about the lack of quality people in the company. What they don’t do is address the person who has failed to complete the work. In this lack of action, they are not listening. They heard what they wanted to hear, and walked away in disgust. What if that person had a family crisis? What if they had tremendous responsibilities outside of the office that you neglected to address? Would you still classify them as a flake or an unreliable source then?

In that moment, you didn’t listen. What you did is what we all do. You gathered some data from your early interactions with that person, jumped to conclusions, and formed perceptions that became hard-wired with words such as: “lazy,” “sloppy,” “lousy work ethic,” and “loser.” Those words became a filter through which you heard without listening. So how do we address this issue?

The solution, I explained, seems simple: Get rid of the filter. The stuff you think you already know about someone—“lazy,” “loser,” “whiny,” “hostile,” “impossible”—is, in reality, blocking out what you need to know. Remove that mental block and you’re ready to start reaching people you thought were unreachable. Think about what you’re thinking. When you consciously analyze the ideas you’ve formed about a person and weigh these perceptions against reality, you can rewire your brain and build new, more accurate perceptions. Then you’ll be communicating with the person who’s really in front of you—not the fictitious character conjured up by your false perceptions.

To see this process in action, let’s go back to that “flaky” office assistant. Initially, most high achievers looked at such people rigidly: Shoddy work + excuses/defensiveness/blaming = flake = why bother even putting the time or effort into dealing with this person? But when I asked them to imagine that a “loser” might have a real reason for underperforming, it forced them to undo their hard-wired preconceptions. This act, in turn, forced them to create a new and more accurate understanding of the person they’d previously written off.

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About The Author

Mark Goulston is a psychiatrist, business consultant, executive coach, and former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. Trained as a clinical psychiatrist, he helps people increase their ability to get through to anyone. He presents many of these skills in his book, JUST LISTEN: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM 2009). Goulston is a member of the International Leadership Association. He has provided training, executive coaching, and consultation to many companies and organizations, including GE, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Xerox, Deutsche Bank, Hyatt, Accenture, ADP, State Farm Insurance, Astra Zenica, Bristol Myers Squibb, Kaiser Permanente, Kodak, Federal Express, FBI, Los Angeles District Attorney, White & Case, Seyfarth Shaw, UCLA, USC, and Pepperdine University.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    A related note to listening well when I project or task isn’t done well: dig deeper!

    Obviously, there are many reasons why a task or project may not be done well by a staff member. Aside from the reasons mentioned above, it may also be possible that there is something flawed about the set-up of the task or project itself. It’s important to give your staff members leeway to fully explain why they didn’t perform a task or do a project successfully, not just expect them to apologize and promise to do better. That’s where listening well is really important. Dig deeper! Go into the conversation with your staff member with the mindset that you might learn something too. If given encouragement, your staff member might just help you improve the task or project in ways you may not have thought about.

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