I ONCE MET with two women to discuss “listening training” as a vital aspect of executive development. After a few casual remarks, I asserted that listening is not well understood in the workplace.
“I don't know if I entirely agree with that,” objected one of the women.
Her remark caught me off guard. After a moment of hesitation, I calmly replied, “What is it that you think you don't entirely agree with?”
“I think our executives have an intellectual appreciation of listening, but they don't have the techniques.”
She was right. Perhaps that's because listening is not as easy as it used to be. In this fast-moving, technology-driven world, distractions invade every aspect of our lives.
A frequent trigger of distraction is emotional reaction. I'm sure this has happened to you during a meeting or teleconference. You are talking with a colleague when suddenly, your effort to listen is interrupted. It could be the feeling that what you're hearing didn't make sense, or maybe you were annoyed because your viewpoint was dismissed or questioned. Many of us are overly sensitive listeners.
A crucial problem in listening is that emotional reactions tend to be the first line of defense against an unexpected negative remark or tone. In conversation, most of us are somewhat “allergic,” interpersonally speaking. We tend to overreact to something the speaker says (or doesn't say). These triggers are part of the psychic toll of listening — they create distractions and can provoke intense reactions.
How can people control this reflexive, knee-jerk instinct to lash out, which can be especially uncomfortable when leading a meeting? Try using a neutral response. This can be a statement or question. For example, the next time someone says, “You are wrong!” or “That's ridiculous!” try responding with, “What gives you that impression?”
That kind of response neutralizes a potentially combative situation. It makes you a more resilient listener.
The more you know about listening and communication, the more you are in control during meetings. So the next time an unwelcome remark or tone threatens to ruffle your emotional feathers, first think: How can I respond unemotionally? What can I say to relieve the sting and buy some time until the episode passes? You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you were able to keep the conversation going on an even keel. And that's what listening is all about.
Dick Harris, an author, consultant and trainer, is president of Richard M. Harris Associates, Teaneck, N.J. He works with clients on the “listening-to-influence” and “persuasive-speaking” aspects of communicational leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit rmharrisassociates.com.