Active listening: Learn to tolerate silence

Everyone talks about active listening, but it seems so hard for people to improve their listening skills.  We can’t just tell them, “You need to speak less and listen more. ”  That doesn’t usually work.  We have to find out what makes it difficult for people to hold their tongue and focus on other people’s comments.

I’ve been coaching a manager who is trying to improve his listening skills.  He tends to repeat himself in meetings, and isn’t attentive to others.  So first we worked on his awareness:  he’s aware that he doesn’t listen well and that he repeats himself.  This may seem obvious, but I pointed out that in order to listen better you have to stop talking.  I wondered what led him to keep on talking, so I asked: What do you think is behind that?

It turns out that he has a hard time with silence, so he continues speaking or jumps in when things are quiet.  He often thinks that he’s the only one who knows the right answer.  He doesn’t trust that others might have some wisdom to bear.  Also, he works in Quality Assurance, so he’s very quick to pick up on risks.  That also leads him to taking a negative stance, as in, “That will never work.”

Wow! That’s interesting.  His mindset is getting in his way.  Just having that awareness is a step forward.  So he has to start getting comfortable with:

  • Trusting that other people have knowledge and wisdom.
  • Tolerating the anxiety that people don’t understand the potential negative outcomes.
  • Holding back his negative response; waiting to see if someone else comes up with that.
  • Finding a way to express his concerns without drowning out the voices of possibility.
  • Periodically paraphrasing others’ comments. That will keep him more focused on them and maybe reduce repeating himself.
  • Appreciating that being silent does not mean “not knowing”.  If he’s had that experience in his background, then that would be an interesting change to his assumptions.

Outcome: Seems to be working!  Here’s what his boss has to say:  Quick note to let you know what a positive impact your time is having with X.  All in all, he is a very enthusiastic participant and is extremely motivated as a result of his time with you and learnings gained so far.

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