The Number One Key to Hard Conversations: Listen More than You Talk

When having difficult conversations listen more than you talk. 

According to a recent article in INC magazine, when asked by Google to rank the most important and effective qualities of managers—company workers surprisingly listed technical proficiency at the bottom of the list.

What was ranked first on their list of effective qualities?

Google employees ranked solid, trustworthy, and respectful communication as the most important asset. Think about that for a minute. Workers far and away desire—not to mention, are more productive for—managers and leaders who speak calmly but clearly, have a respectful tone, and are really good at listening.

We all want to know that someone is concerned about us as a human being—not just for the skills we bring to the table. No one likes to feel ‘used.’ Although workers understand they have a job to perform, studies show productivity rises when they feel appreciated, heard, and personally developed in their organization.

Listening is an important skill set. And yet, how many of us have ever had a class on listening?

Most of us were trained in speech and public presentation—the crucial ability to be able to communicate our thoughts and lay out our ideas persuasively. We’ve taken classes in school and surely have given many presentations. Yet why haven’t we been trained in how to listen?

Look in the mirror. What do you see? Two ears and one mouth. What a powerful word picture that presents to us just how important listening is compared to speaking.

What is true listening?

If being an effective manager is more about relating well to others than it is about being bright or technically savvy—we must understand the core of what true listening is and what it’s not.

Real listening isn’t easy. If it were easy, we would all be a lot better at it. Real listening is difficult because it requires focused attention—not only to the other person, but to how I’m responding. Listening involves hearing the other person with our ears, our eyes, and our heart.

Our two ears are critical to hearing the other person—but are we using them to allow their thoughts and ideas to register long enough to be processed?

Often we are ‘drowning’ out what the other person is saying, nodding our head in feigned recognition, while on the inside preparing exactly what we are going to say at the next pause. It may sound harsh, but subconsciously we are pros at it.

The skill of listening is far more than simply ‘hearing’ with our ears. It is ‘listening’ with our ears, eyes, and heart. There’s so much to be learned from someone’s body language, someone’s eyes, someone’s posture.

When someone is sharing, and their eyes gleam a little bit, that means there is an emotional response going on inside of them. That’s a clear indicator that what they are sharing is really meaningful. In order to really listen, I may need to ask them to reflect deeper on why that point is so important.

Studies show that only 10% of communication is verbal—much more is body language. Crossed arms or legs, rolled eyes or a ‘checked out’ posture are all speaking loud and clear how the conversation is really going. We must take time to ‘read’ these ‘tells’ that their body language is sending. We also need to make sure that our own body isn’t communicating something to the other party that would shut down their ability to share vulnerably.

The heart of the matter is the heart of listening. We have to make a commitment at the core of who we are to listen effectively. Remember, listening doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing. What the other person is saying may be causing all sorts of uncomfortable emotions inside of me—regardless, my goal is to create a healthy, open environment for them to share freely without fear.

Reflective listening is powerful listening. Those who are able to reflect back what they are hearing the other party say will go a long way—not only in listening, but in inviting the other party to share even more.

“What I hear you saying is…”

“That point seemed to really move you. Can you tell me more about…?”

“I see that you felt _____. What else makes you feel that way…?“

These are all powerful examples of good, reflective listening.






What Listening IS NOT

A difficult conversations often feels like chaos. There’s so much tension, so many views being expressed, emotions are flying off the handle. In that context it’s very difficult not to allow the awkwardness of the situation to posture us in negative ways for ineffective listening.

Tense environments cause our body language to stiffen, our eyes will often look down or off into space instead of engaging the other party, and our heart tends to beat so fast it’s almost impossible to slow down enough to process what’s being said. We can easily retreat inward and begin analyzing who is right and who is wrong—making swifter judgments and preparing sharper criticisms should we be presented with the opportunity to speak.

This is NOT listening. We may be ‘hearing’ with our ears, but we are actually setting ourselves up to completely misunderstand what’s being said and not accurately reflect back to them what they have said. All of which will cause even more frustration and stunt healthy communication.

Ineffective listeners will be ever hearing, but never understanding because they are not engaging their heart, eyes, or even ears well. They are more concerned with what they are going to say next than what the other party is saying.

Ineffective listeners do not allow the other party to share vulnerably, but stunt healthy communication by interrupting, feigning apathy or just blatantly ignoring what is being said. This will not only hinder listening—it will damage relationships.

Effective listeners have the ability to slow down the conversation, if necessary, and ask insightful questions that will help the other party arrive at the central points they are trying to make in an appropriate way.

Effective listeners will actually draw out more than the party even knew that they were going to share—simply by creating a safe environment where the true “puzzle pieces” to solve the problem can actually get on the table.

Effective listeners grow relationships all around them because people feel heard, understood, and trust that the listener is on their team. Even if they don’t always agree with what they are saying, they know that listener is apt to really hear, understand, and correct appropriately in order to help them move forward in their life and career.

Listening skills are crucial to effective communication and leadership.

The plain and simple truth is this—people that are most effective at helping their organizations are the ones who are the most effective at helping the individual within those organizations.

Effective leaders are not only effective communicators, they are effective listeners. The starting point is making room for the other person’s thoughts and being proactive to understand what they are trying to say.

These skills are especially crucial in having difficult conversations, and we at Ember Learning are committed to helping you become more effective at having them. We all have difficult conversations, whether at home, at the office, or at our kids’ soccer games.

And the truth is—they never cease being hard. That said, we can get better at them by acquiring the right skills.

Want to become more effective at having difficult conversations? Sometimes our conversations don’t play out that well, run off the rails, and people leave feeling demoralized or belittled. We know what it’s like to walk away from a conversation that we are still carrying hours, days, or even years later, which is why we’ve created this FREE resource entitled 15 Ways to Turn Hard Conversations into Win-Win Dialogue. It will help you start to navigate even the most challenging discussions. Click here to download the guide now!

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