At the European Begiestring Organizations meeting in Manchester in November this year, a few of us had a conversation about how to engage with a request to help managers develop ‘active listening skills’ in a new, interesting and engaging way.
Active Listening as a set of activities
We started by considering the ‘mechanics’ of active listening, for example: good eye contact; clarifying; summarising; and displaying visible signs of attending – ‘the nodding donkey’, noticing that they can become de-contextualised; can become a list of ‘to do’ behaviours. I certainly have experienced the disconcerting effect of talking to someone who is showing all the right behaviours but behind whose waterfall-mist eyes it is clear that disconnected thoughts are crowding and cascading. I am not being ‘heard’ although he may be hearing what I say.
We moved on to thinking about the spirit of appreciative inquiry, the desire to ‘grow more of what we want’ and how this might help reposition ‘active listening’ as a systemic, dynamic, creative act.
Active Listening as an intention
This led us to an awareness that listening is always an act of intent: we are listening to some purpose or for some reason. There are many different possible purposes, for example:
- To bear witness
- To provide space for someone to think
- To provide help
- To provide encouragement
- To help sort confusion
- To share an experience
- To find fault or spot flaws
- To appreciate
And so on. Each might require listening for different things. So at a meta-level we could ask ourselves, firstly, what might be our own personal default intent when we listen, and secondly what do we particularly need to be listening for in this conversation, what sort of listening is appropriate here? There is a shift from an emphasis on body language to an emphasis on integrity of intention.
What might help
We thought a few things probably help in all situations
- Feeling peaceful in ourselves, aligned in mind and body
- Not worrying about ‘the next thing to say’ or ‘getting it right’
- Allowing that what ever kind of listening shows up is the right kind
- Recognising that intense listening can be full of activity – asking many questions, reformulating a lot, re-acting. It is not necessarily a passive activity.
- Having the ability to say ‘I’m not able to offer you my full attention, or to listen well right now because…( I’m getting anxious about time, I’m distracted by…)’
- Recognising that the concept ‘I must to 100% present’ is precisely that, a concept that may be unobtainable at any given time
If we were to think of appreciative listening
In general, in a spirit of appreciative listening we might find ourselves listening for
What is working?
What are the resources available here?
What good is in this?
What is the broader picture, and how can we connect to that?
We might ask ourselves questions such as:
What arouses my curiosity in this?
What do I connect to?
What excites me in what is being said?
What can we grow from this?
Thanks to the other participants in this conversation: Madeline Blair, Suzanne Quigley, Pauline Doyle, and Claire Lustig-Roche.