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  • Writer's pictureLin Sagovsky

Listen – If You Wanna Know A Secret

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Ray Charlton, a profoundly wise trainer and member of the facilitation team on Henley Business School’s bespoke leadership courses, says that during any conversation, one of three things is going on:

"Either: talking, as I am doing to you now, Or: waiting for my turn to talk next,

Or: truly listening.

The third is very rare.”

He’s right! And he’s one of the best listeners I have ever met.

People like Ray understand that, to some people, it’s an elevator, not a lift. Or a front room, not a lounge. Or a jumper, not a pullover.

A technique that all good listeners employ is to reflect the language of the person they’re listening to. Listening for the other person’s vocabulary, and using it yourself – even if it’s not your own natural choice – subliminally shows that you are listening with full attention, and value what they have to say.

Nancy Kline writes about levels of listening in Time to Think a book I’d recommend to anyone. And what she says has spawned an exercise I sometimes get my participants to do in pairs.

One person is the Speaker, the other, the Listener. The Speaker talks to the other about a hobby, or their family, or a great holiday they’ve been on – the subject is immaterial as long as they can easily enthuse about it. Their partner – the Listener – tries four different styles of listening.

First, listening with Negative Intent. As the Speaker speaks, the Listener maintains a constant silent mantra: “I hate this. This is boring. I wish I were anywhere but here. When is this person going to shut up?” …and so on. It usually doesn’t take long before the Speaker is finding it difficult to keep the monologue going!

So the Speaker starts again. This time, the Listener tries Active Listening – to the max. Constant “uh-huhs”, vigorous nods and facial expressions of astonishment and agreement go way over the top, lacking any shred of sincerity. Same result, usually. The Speaker grinds to a halt – because clearly, the Listener isn’t really listening.

So the Speaker restarts a third time. And this time, the Listener’s instruction is: ‘Listen in order to be able to repeat back.’ That one usually makes it much easier for the Speaker to talk, because now the Listener is actually paying attention, conscious that I might test them afterwards (and yes, I usually do!).

Then I ask the pairs to repeat the exercise one final time. And now, the Listener’s instruction is: 'Listen for what you can learn about the Speaker’s values.' An actor might call this ‘listening for the subtext’.

What’s really going on for the Speaker beneath the words?

What do the words say about the way that person looks at the world, and what he or she considers important?

What ‘drivers’ can the Listener detect?

It’s usually apparent that this final, deep style of listening creates an intimacy and a trust that has little chance to flourish otherwise. Certainly, it goes way beyond the experience of being barely tolerated by a negative Listener, or over-responded to by someone more intent on appearing to listen than actually doing so - or even a listener who aims merely to remember what was said.

Of course, we make wrong assumptions about other people all the time. And those tend to become the basis of our responses and behaviours towards them forthwith. So listening for clues about values is absolutely not aimed to engender judgments or suppositions. It is, rather, to recognise the way true listening flags up possibilities – rather than certainties – about that person, which then need to be further explored by asking questions.

I do, by the way, invite Speakers to comment after every stage of the exercise. The first two styles almost always make it difficult for them to speak at all. That’s because the Listener who isn’t really listening is having a profound effect upon the Speaker’s ability or willingness to express anything worth saying. And that's a point worth remembering in meetings – even when there are several people present and the focus isn’t, apparently, on you. Whether you know it or not, the calibre of your listening – like everyone else’s – is constantly helping or hindering the quality of real communication happening in that room. (There's more on that here.) Usually it’s much easier for the Speaker to speak – and say something worth hearing – when he or she feels truly listened to.

Establish yourself as a true Listener, and people will have confidence – confide – in you. Because they trust you. Sometimes with their secrets.

And my colleague Ray is right: that’s rare.

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