“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force...When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life...When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other...and it is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom. ...Well, it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.” Brenda Ueland
Twelve to fourteen years ago, I was part of a major collaborative project. We were trying to get 24 individual nonprofit agencies to become one integrated system of services. It was a survival intervention. These small nonprofits were losing their funding and they needed support and an infrastructure to stay alive, so linking them together to make them stronger was the plan. People were afraid and resistant to say the least. The project was listening boot camp for me. I think I learned more about listening in those two years than I had my entire life up to that point.
Did you know that you learn more about yourself by listening to others, if you really try? If you aren’t careful, you can miss the best stuff. Here are some of the things that I learned from that experience:
People hear what they want to hear. We all have a way of filtering out the stuff we don’t want to hear, or just missing the parts that are not familiar to us. One of the strategic marketing assignments that we gave the leaders of the small nonprofits was to go out into their communities and interview key stakeholders. They were supposed to ask a few questions. What is your biggest frustration? What service that doesn’t exist now, would you pay to see developed? And how are we doing and how can we improve our services to you? Do you know what happened? In nearly every case, the leader came back with the message ‘We are OK and they want us to do what we do already’. Really? Seriously? We did some more training, sent them out again and this time they heard some different messages. Those second round interviews lead to the development of 84 new services and $5.4 million in new service revenue. Were the answers different the second time? Probably not. The leaders just heard them the second time.
It takes multiple washings. You may have heard this old trainer’s adage: Tell your audience what you're going to tell them. Tell them your message. Then tell them what you told them. If it’s bad news, then repeat. You may need to send your message 7 or more times for people to hear it. The tougher the news, the more often and the clearer you need to send the message. So, if it takes multiple washings to send a message, it’s going to take multiple washings to hear a message too. Ask them to tell you again, paraphrase to make sure you heard them carefully.
People fill in the blanks with worse than the truth. Truly listen and respond to fears and concerns. If you don’t know something, saying you don’t know but you will find out is a more comforting message than leaving people to their own assumptions. The biggest mistake you can make is to not address a fear that you hear. Meeting people where they are validates that you are listening. You can’t move someone forward without meeting them where they are first.
People will like you if you listen to them. Liking is a key principle in persuasion. People tend to do things for people that they like that they won’t do for people that they don’t like. When you truly listen to someone you are relating to them. Relating makes you more likable.
"It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." Oliver Wendell Holmes. Practice strategic listening.