Most of the leaders I work with as a coach and trainer already know they need to be better listeners — they’ve read the articles about the central role listening plays in building teams, managing change, achieving strategic buy-in, etc. They’ve seen the research that correlates effective listening with a broad range of leadership attributes and business success, and they’ve taken Lee Iacocca’s famous frustration to heart.
So how can you turn listening from a shortcoming to a superpower?
Let’s start with what listening is not (though in my experience this covers much of what passes for listening in business). Listening is not transactional; listening is not passive; listening is not waiting your turn to talk.
Superpower listening is different — it’s active, it’s curious, it’s creative, and it’s collaborative. And most importantly, it’s a performance.
And performing as a listener has everything to do with improvisation. If you’ve ever seen improv comedy, you’ve experienced the kind of magic that takes place as people perform what looks and sounds like a very funny, well-rehearsed script. But there is no script. No rehearsal. No plan.
Improvisers can create theater without a script for one reason: They are awesome listeners. Improvisers perform listening in a very particular way. They listen to build with others. They listen to create with others. They listen to collaborate with others. Improvisers are open and willing to say yes to their co-performers, follow them anywhere, and co-create with everything they are given. I call this act of listening hearing offers.
And in every conversation, you’re presented with all kinds of offers. Even if the opposite appears to be the case. A colleague ignoring your question is an offer. Your team getting the research that you asked for done early is an offer. A client saying he’s not interested in whatever you have to sell is an offer. A laugh at your joke is an offer. Your boss not looking up at you when you come into her office is an offer. All of this — the good, the bad, and the to-be-determined — they’re all offers that you can create with, if you hear them.
But most of us ignore many of the offers that are right there in front of us, for countless reasons. Maybe you’re afraid you don’t know what to say, or you don’t really understand, so you just soldier on even as the conversation crumbles. Or you disagree, and put all your energy into arguing. Or you get attached to the locomotive of your agenda and can’t get off that train. Or you’re worried you’ll sound stupid, say the wrong thing, or just plain run out of time.
All of the above have probably been true for everyone, at least some of the time. But armed with the improviser’s superpowers of performing as a listener (by hearing offers and building with them), you can overcome the multitude of obstacles and turn listening into an act of co-creation with other people.
Try these exercises to warm up your listening superpowers:
1. Pick an upcoming meeting or a one-on-one conversation and experiment with making listening your first priority. Don’t listen for anything. Instead, notice how many offers come your way (remember, they’re not always positive). Pause longer than you normally would before you respond, and when you do, pick an offer, acknowledge that you heard it, and then build on it.
2. Take special notice of body language offers. How someone sits, their facial expressions, their walk, what they’re looking at, and more. Listen, see, and respond to those offers.
3. Perform curiosity: Do you have a friend or colleague you disagree with about something? Have a conversation in which (for once) you don’t try to convince them that they’re wrong, but instead find out everything you can about how they see the topic or issue.
4. Ask a colleague or friend to tell you a story about him or herself that you’ve never heard. Sit back, and listen.
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