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Listen up!

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Listen up!

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Alicia Fortinberry explains how to train yourself in the art of listening

The simple act of listening is perhaps the greatest tool for empowering yourself and others. We are in the midst of a loneliness and stress epidemic. One of people’s strongest needs is to be heard – and that experience is increasingly rare.

Asking astute questions enables us to direct conversations, surface issues and uncover assumptions and underlying issues so they can be addressed. But the cleverest questions won’t do much for you if you don’t listen to the answers, or don’t seem to listen.

For lawyers, listening tends to be even harder than questioning; perhaps because it seems more passive. After all, being a good lawyer is about knowing the facts and having the answers, right? Or at least asking the punchy questions. Speak up seems to be today’s big thing.

There is a saying going around at some organisations I work with – that if you haven’t spoken up in the first three minutes of a meeting there’s no point in being there. My personal idea of hell is a meeting where everyone feels the need to speak up in the first three minutes or at any time – even if they have nothing to say. Cacophony is the inverse of high performance.

In fact, a characteristic I have observed (or been part of ) in high performing teams is intense listening followed by periods of silence. People feel comfortable thinking about an issue or statement someone has made and searching for a new way to approach the situation.

Without the sound track it may seem as if not much is going on, but in this reflective state more of the brain is involved, including the various decision-making ‘brains’ in the body such as the nerve plexuses in the gut, heart and skin.

Some people don’t contribute where they really could make a difference. Many of my clients say: “What’s the point of speaking up if I won’t be heard?” This has come out lately in engagement surveys at several firms I work with.

The problem is, we don’t hear in the sense of absorbing and retaining 60 per cent of what is said. There are three reasons for this:

  1. We reject opinions or information that go against our cherished assumptions and beliefs. The part of the brain that holds these (the orbital prefrontal cortex) literally filters out input we find threatening to our view of ourselves or the world.
  2. We are so busy thinking about how we will respond. This is called ‘reloading’.
  3. What is being said has triggered the amygdala – the part of the brain that signals danger. It scans the environment for anything that has caused us upset or pain in the past, and reacts by readying the system for fight, flight or freeze. Daniel Goleman called this response the “amygdala hijack” because it shuts down all other brain functions (including listening) that might interfere with the three actions.

This is why people often bring a friend with them to the doctor if they fear there might be bad news. The friend can listen and take notes about what needs to happen while the patient is in shock and temporarily unable to take in what the doctor says.

In today’s society, especially in the stressful legal environment, people are increasingly likely to be reactive than able to take in what is said. Literally, the brain is too engaged in defence.

If we can’t hear and understand each other, we can’t trust or feel secure. Since we are hard wired to feel protected in the context of supported relationships, the inability to listen well or to be heard erodes our basic sense of safety. We don’t normally trust people who don’t listen to us.

Train yourself to truly listen and you can empower yourself and others, and become their trusted advisor, leader or colleague. How do you train yourself to be a keen listener? The trick is not to focus equally on every word but like a speed-reader, concentrate on words that seem significant to you. These may be words in a work context that have a strong emotional or relationship impact, such as “unexpected” or “devastated” or “exciting”.

People are not often conscious of what they are really saying. Simply reflecting back people’s own words, or asking them to expand on what they say, often enables them to actually hear themselves and come to a new understanding. For example, a junior lawyer or graduate to whom you are delegating a task might say: “I’m almost sure I can get this done.” You might reflect back (perhaps with a smile): “Almost?” Then you could ask: “What would you need in order to feel really confident?”

You can also pick up on words that will lead the conversation in the direction you want. If you are speaking to a client, you might listen for words that indicate their real concerns about how the matter might affect them or important stakeholders.

For example, a client might say: “If I take the course you suggest, there will be questions.” Instead of defending your advice you might ask: “Tell me what kinds of questions and from whom.” If they say: “I’m not sure about this direction”, you might then ask: “What would you need to know in order to feel more sure?”

People are less likely to feel attacked by your questions because you are simply picking up on their words. Senior lawyers often tell me their clients or team members don’t tell them what they are thinking. I believe that’s because they aren’t listening for cues or following them down. In workshops, I ask people to do a listening exercise of following down what I call ‘key words’.

They start by asking an innocuous question such as: “What did you do over the weekend?” Often, within a few minutes they have found out new and significant, often startling things about people – even those they have known for years. I find that by following down about five key words I can almost always uncover something important in their life. I’m always careful not to expose too much, yet participants often say: “She really got to the core of me.”

I call this focused process mindful listening. It helps me create strong relationships in all aspects of my life, but one of its greatest advantages is my own resilience. When I am totally intent on the words others use, my brain doesn’t have room for negative self-talk or second guessing.

People also tend more quickly to relax and come onside. That assurance increases my own self-confidence and, therefore, their confidence in me. Life is more interesting, rewarding, and fun.

Dr Alicia Fortinberry is principal at Fortinberry Murray fortinberrymurray.com

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