Are You Listening?
Or just responding…
Until this January, I was working at a start-up. We had around 60 team members at its peak and on several occasions, I found myself in meetings with our CEO, COO, managers — the people with the power. In the first few meetings, I attended I felt a pressure to impress. I found myself vomiting out non-critical pieces of information, running off-topic, and not having the answers. This was clear in the faces of those asking the questions, or seeking solutions. I was missing the mark. I was spending the weekend to prepare, my notes were in order, I was on top of my shit, but still, I wasn’t adding the value I wanted to. Why?
To find out, I evaluated my contributions, and what became clear was that I was not listening to understand. I was listening to respond.
I was not digesting the conversation, rather I was planning my next sentence, under the assumption that by participating I was doing my job. I wasn’t.
I challenged myself to abandon my current practice and enter the next few meetings dedicating my full attention to the discussion. What was being said.
In the first meeting, it must have been rare for me to sit in silence because our COO asked me if I was listening. I was. For real this time. I wanted to hear everyone’s thoughts on the topic. I wanted to hear the solutions proposed, previous failures, roadblocks and more. Then, with a true understanding, generate my response and contribute. It worked.
This idea of listening to understand, and not listening to reply is challenging. From the time when our age is measured in months, we’ve been engaging in conversation and responding to certain cues. These cues include that when the person speaking stops, we start. Yes, this is conversation, though I’ll ask what is the quality of our quick responses. Often we are offering up a less than substantial group of words, rather than focusing on what was said and allowing ourselves to go deep and expand on the subject.
Let’s be comfortable in silence. The silence that is between their period and our response. Let’s wade in this silence and use it as a true opportunity to absorb, to digest what was said and respond with so much intention.
Where listening to understand, and not to reply shows up in our lives is critical. It’s communication, and it’s at the core of relationships, friendships, family conversations, places of employment and more. With a slight shift in our motivations for listening, we can allow ourselves to be fully present in a conversation. We gift ourselves the time and space to construct responses that are not designed to fill the silence, but to be delivered with intent and have an impact.
I’m currently reading Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are by Frans De Waal, and he distinguishes the intellect of a species by an ability to use tools. As human beings, a major distinction between us and other mammals is our ability to make superior tools. Another is our system of communication. We have developed a sophisticated tool of communication that allows us to completely express ourselves, our wants, desires, to each other. By recognizing this, I encourage us to take full advantage and exhaust ourselves through participation in meaningful conversations.
Truthfully, we deserve it.
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