Most of us aren’t really listening, we barely hear half the time. That sounds like a joke, but it’s believed we comprehend less than 50% of the conversations we are a part of. That’s over half of all messages that are forgotten, discarded, distorted or simply lost. Avril Henry, author of Leadership Revelations II How Australians lead in Crises describes how, “many of us practice the art of ‘half an ear’ or ‘stunned mullet’ listening.” If we’re honest we’ve all been guilty of these things from time to time.

Think about what happens at the end of a meeting in your workplace, how many people make it out the door without pulling out their phone and checking what they may have missed in their inbox in the 30 or 60 minutes they were engaged in the meeting? They’re nodding in agreement to the colleague still trying to speak to them but they’re shuffling away face buried in their screen.  Nicole Lipkin, author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night says “Most of us in the workplace are so overwhelmed with things to do—instant messaging, phones ringing. Our brain can only tolerate so much information before it snaps.” I think Nicole is being generous inferring that it is just in the workplace. I know there have been times at home when I have accidentally agreed to something because I’ve dismissively said ‘ahhm yep sure’ instead of really listening to what my child is asking. (Flashback to the time I had to actually follow through on constructing a Captain America shield.)

Listening one to one is hard. One situation where listening becomes even harder is listening as part of a group conversation, where you must listen to the whole room. More and more frequently this is the way in which work gets done and decisions get made in the workplace these days. A group conversation that often does not have a designated facilitator but where all members are equally responsible for taking the conversation forward to reach the desired outcome. When a group conversation runs well with participants who are engaged and participating, it is a very effective way to get things done. But it takes a special kind of listening.

Listening is the critical part (well duh I hear you say) but sometimes people think they can talk their way through a group conversation. That if they keep spinning their story in different ways eventually everyone will agree with them. Talking is not facilitating conversation – it is just talking. You are not going to reach consensus or rally troops or form a single vision if you don’t zip it and listen to all the other voices in the room.

People are going to say things you don’t agree with and that’s okay. When multiple people are thrown into a room together, emotions can run high, and that’s okay too. Often our instinct is to try to appease everyone in the room and make them feel better. Peter Bregman from the Harvard Business Review says “most of the time when we try to make people feel better, we end up arguing with them because we’re contradicting what they’re feeling. Which, inevitably, makes them feel worse.” Listening does not mean fixing.

Now that we’re clear that listening is not talking or agreeing or fixing, let’s explore what good listening in a group can look like. This is difficult stuff folks, it gets uncomfortable, and you’re not going to master it overnight but it is worth the effort to keep trying. So how do we really listen to each other, not just to understand, not to falsely agree, but to connect and ultimately navigate a group conversation?

Firstly, be present. This is a respect thing. Show up on time for the conversation and remain present while you are there. We’ve all been part of meetings where people come in and out, or decide to leave three quarters of the way through because they got bored. It doesn’t feel very nice, does it? Be present and work with the group to get to the outcome. Perhaps using some mindfulness techniques could help you here, spend a moment thinking about your own posture. Are you facing into the conversation to show that you are ready to listen? Focus on your breathing for a few seconds to centre your thoughts in the present. Take notice of your surroundings, the people the furniture. You signed up for the conversation so commit to being present.

While you’re listening, you’re just listening, nothing more. I’m not only referring to the obvious multitasking of burying your head in your phone screen, I’m talking about mental multitasking too. Try to stay focused on what the people in the room are saying. Switching off and just waiting for your turn to talk because you thought of an awesome one-liner and you can’t wait to say it, is not listening. Even if your one-liner is really funny, if you stopped listening ten minutes ago while you polished the joke in your head you have been missing stuff.
Acknowledge but don’t interrupt. Acknowledging is not necessarily about agreeing nor is it about criticising; it’s letting the person know you heard what they said. Often you do this by offering your thoughts in response in a ‘non-judgey’ way. But it is important where possible to try to let the person finish what they are saying and not interrupt assuming you know what they are going to say. As humans, we can’t help but have a confirmation bias where we hear what we want to hear. Lipkin says. “We’ll look for information that supports what we want to see and hear and ignore everything else.”

Paraphrase and ask questions. This is one way you let the person who just spoke know that you listened and you want to understand. It can be as simple as saying, “Let me check I understood what you are saying, I heard….’ If you aren’t clear what the other person is trying to say, ask clarifying questions. Don’t just let it go, because if your understanding of each other starts to diverge it is harder to converge back to a single place of understanding. Again, I’m not talking about agreeing, I’m saying you need to make an effort to understand the point they are trying to make.

Listen for feelings and non-verbal cues. Expressing emotion in the workplace is not a bad thing, we are all human after all. Yet in a group conversation if a person gets angry or frustrated one of two things usually happens. Either everyone tries to ‘fix’ the person who has expressed emotion to bring them back to a safe and neutral place. Or, it is ignored and skipped past… ‘nothing to see here folks’. If a person is expressing emotion, listen and acknowledge it. Sometimes you need to listen to the things that aren’t said as much as to the things that are. This can be body language, facial expression, or voice qualities such as pitch, tone, speed or volume. The same rules apply to non-verbals: ask clarifying questions if you need to, and acknowledge it.

When you have a group of people actively listening to each other and consciously participating in the conversation you can start to achieve synthesis. Synthesis meshes together multiple components into something new. Triple Crown Leadership says that “Synthesis takes A + B + C, and then derives D, where D encompasses the essence of A, B, and C but also adds something new that resonates deeply with people.” This is where I find a visual capture of your conversation can help. It aids in shared understanding and ultimately helps synthesise the conversation. When you build a picture of your conversation together; when everyone can see a piece of what they said combining with the other ideas in the room to create something more compelling than just the sum of the parts, that’s when you are creating visual synergy. Using visuals in this way can help you reach your outcome faster, it helps everyone in the room understand. And it means the message is likely to live longer as everyone present now has a visual trigger to help with recall of the conversation.

Want to receive my posts directly into your inbox each week? Then hit the subscribe button!