Become a communication professional through deep listening
Note: This article is based on a presentation I gave at the Smart Elevation Summit in Basel in 2017.
Do you despair of communication in your work environment?
Are you listening or still thinking?
If there is one thing that really annoys me, it’ s when I have the feeling in a conversation that my counterpart is just waiting to tell his story. And not really interested in what I have to say.
Do you know this feeling when you stop and ask yourself “Did I miss something?
Just now I revealed something about myself and I am really interested in an exchange of opinions.
And the next moment I listen to the other person’s story.
Without any mention of me at all.
Or do you recognize yourself here: You tell someone something that is important to you and the person is constantly looking at his smartphone.
Or just nods absently and you feel that his thoughts are somewhere else, but not with you and this conversation.
How does it feel?
It definitely gives me a pale aftertaste.
Of course, we live in a time of distractions in which our attention is constantly challenged.
Here, whatsapp beeps, there an email comes in, here a red circle – which – now – wants my attention! A photo is posted quickly. Don’t miss anything, otherwise it could end badly.
But what is the price?
In my opinion, the real encounter falls by the wayside.
The exchange of thoughts and ideas.
It used to be said that ideas are like living creatures that stimulate each other and thus grow …
A different awareness is needed in companies
This behaviour can be observed particularly well in companies.
In meetings, for example, everyone talks in a confused way but no one responds to the other.
Or they talk about something that is not relevant at all.
The idea, the innovation is neglected.
A new meeting has to be arranged (annoying!) or at best an expensive consulting firm has to be hired to help you out of the mess.
Year after year, billions of Euros and employees are wasted.
The energy flows where attention goes
How I go into an encounter determines how I get out. Do I approach the person openly, curiously, or biased, thinking about something else?
If I am somewhere else in my thoughts, my energy cannot flow to my conversation partner or into the topic of the meeting. My attention determines the result.
I see this as a possible explanation for the failure of many team workshops, management audits and, as already mentioned, meetings, but also for friendships and relationships in the private sphere.
In my opinion, it needs a different quality of cooperation, a different form of listening.
In order to understand what deep listening means, it is worth knowing the other forms of listening.
Anyone who only talks about himself, hears what he already knows!
In the classic management Theory U – Leading from the Future by C.O.Scharmer, four levels of listening are described. It also explains why it is so important for us as a society and for companies to arrive at a deeper level of listening.
It’s about getting out of the ego perspective (the world revolves around me) towards a more emphatic and open attitude towards the whole system. This creates space for something new.
It is from there that the increasingly complex problems of today can be solved.
According to the motto:
Problems can never be solved by the same way of thinking that gave rise to them (Albert Einstein)
Listening is not listening: The four different levels of listening (according to C.O. Scharmer)
This is the state in which listening happens as if on autopilot. Based on our experiences, we only hear what we already know. What the other person has to say doesn’t really matter, it’s “downloaded” what’s going through your head.
Previous judgements are confirmed, because you only selectively hear what you know and what corresponds to your own judgement.
It’s like standing in the middle of a closed room and throwing your own presentation on the wall. The blinds are down.
The result: There is no increase in learning, but only a confirmation of what you already know. (I think there are a lot of management debates at this level!). But small talk is also part of this level.
And small talk has its reason for existence!
Sometimes in a business context, you don’t feel like telling something really personal and prefer to remain superficial and trivial, but still nice and informal.
Here, we come into the science mode: Listening and comparing what is different. Here, the conversation becomes more serious and objective, as for example in business meetings.
The focus is on figures, data and facts.
Meetings are often about who is right and who provides the better arguments.
The spirit is open! Open to refute its own point of view.
Charles Darwin, for example, always had a notebook with him to write down which observations refute his theories. He knew how his mind tried to trick him: what the theory does not confirm is sorted out. But: Innovation lies in contradictory facts!
To stay in the picture: You go to the window, pull up the blinds and open the window.
It becomes dangerous if you stick to the ping-pong argument and nothing new can emerge from it. Then the change to the next level helps.
Empathic listening (deeper level)
We forget our own plan and begin to see the world through the eyes of others. We shift our focus from ourselves to others.
We listen with an open heart! This leads to an emotional connection with others.
The methods of active listening are used: Paraphrasing, therapeutic grunting (really means 😀), keeping eye contact, etc.
Helpful questions to ask yourself in this process are:
- How am I doing right now as a whole person?
- How do you think my vis-à-vis is doing?
- How does the situation feel for my counterpart?
- How does his perspective on things look like?
- What worries, needs or hopes do I have? What is my vis-à-vis?
- Which body sensations can I perceive in myself?
In (business) practice, the trick is to say the answers to these questions out loud in order to reach a new level of conversation.
e.g. a conversation between colleagues might sound like this:
“I don’t know what’s going on right now, but I do notice how this meeting makes me tired, and somehow annoys me. I had hoped that we would come to a result quickly, but now new topics suddenly appear that I hadn’t thought of before. This makes me realize that you seem to have other important issues that I didn’t know about. I’m glad that I’m hearing about this now and that we can also take the time to talk about it. Max, I have the feeling that it is particularly important for you to bring topic X back to the table and I wonder how you are right now?
Neuroscientists would say: We listen from the field of others.
We go out of our space, towards others.
Creative or Deep listening
Listening is done with an open mind.
I.e. we are ready to let go and to let something new develop. Your own ego is cleared out of the way and you open an inner space of silence. Out of this silence, the new can arise. We connect with our higher self.
The conversation is like a kind of intoxication: one word follows the other, one inspires each other and suddenly a wonderful new idea is born.
All the great “masters” of their field have managed to become active on the fourth level.
Why can’t we always listen deeply?
Deep listening has three enemies:
The Voice of Judgement
It prevents access to the open mind.
We only hear our own chatter instead of really listening to each other.
What is said is permanently evaluated and devalued.
The Voice of Cynicism
It prevents access to the open heart.
We are afraid to be vulnerable and attackable if we show ourselves openly.
Cynicism builds distance. The ability to hear with the intelligence of the heart is blocked.
The Voice of Fear
It prevents access to open will.
The ability to let go and let arise, to touch the authentic self, is blocked by fears. For example the fear of mistakes, of exclusion, of dying, …
Leadership, by the way, goes back in the word root to dying – to “Let die”. To let the old die and enter the room out of nowhere.
Through regular meditation, you can e.g. learn to observe and change these voices better. Put your hand on your stomach, get in contact. This centering exercise will help you.
Awareness is the first step to change!
What you can concretely do to practice deep listening
You don’t have to become a Buddhist monk to enter the silent space of listening.
It may surprise you, but your body is an essential key to listening more deeply.
Try it out: Surrender your thoughts.
Or go to your favourite social media account. Go wild!
Whatever: Do it with full intensity for at least one minute.
Now I ask you:
How deep did your breath flow in time?
Probably you don’t know it because you didn’t pay attention to it (you shouldn’t have ;))
Do the same again now, but this time watch your breathing..
Do you sense how you’re more present in what you’re doing?
Or that you can’t give in to your thoughts and watch your breath at the same time?
Our breath is a wonderful gift.
Not only that it keeps us alive.
It is also an anchor that always brings us back to the here and now.
When we are in the here and now, in the present, we are fully there.
And THIS is what our counterpart feels!
Therefore it is also called present 🎁
Conversely, this means that if you go into a conversation with flat snap breathing, the probability is greater that you will not be able to listen so well.
For your breath to flow freely, the diaphragm must be loose.
Until about the age of 10, our breath flows very freely and deep into our stomach,
which is due to a relaxed diaphragm.
From then on, it usually starts with “stress” that leads to tension in this important muscle.
In addition, beauty ideas of a flat belly comes, causing many people to have chronic abdominal retraction instead of deep breathing, or clothes and tight belts.
By the way: If we breathe only flat into the chest, we prevent our body from being optimally supplied with oxygen. This way we get tired and exhausted faster. And stress is signalled to our brain: Breast breathing is the breathing that starts when we have to fight or flee..
Three exercises that immediately help you to loosen your diaphragm and deepen your breathing
Exercise 1: Power Breathing
I stole this exercise from Tony Robbins. He does it before he goes on stage to boost his energy.
- You stand or sit up straight, spine straight.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose and lift your arms up, your hands are open.
- Breathe out strongly through your mouth and pull your arms downwards, fists as if you were pulling a heavy weight downwards.
- Repeat several times (recommendation 60 seconds)
- Then allow yourself a moment to feel the effect (tingling, warmth, …)
Exercise 2: Jump!
Jumping is a pure nirvana for the diaphragm.
If you have a trampoline, do this exercise on it.
But it also works without.
- Stand upright, loose knees, shoulders and arms hanging relaxed towards the floor
- Start with a slight bouncing movement, not high, so that you lift off the ground with your heels.
- Every time you come up on the floor/trampoline, exhale.
- Stay in motion for at least 60 sec.
- Allow yourself a moment afterwards to feel the effect.
Exercise 3: Yoga Laugh
Perhaps the easiest way to loosen your diaphragm is to laugh heartily!
Even if you feel funny at first, just start laughing loudly.
At some point the laugh becomes automatic and you don’t have to force it any more.
Do it for at least 60 seconds!
Allow yourself a moment to feel the effect.
If you are good “with you”, you can also be good with others.
The breath helps to have contact to oneself and to get out of the noisy thoughts.
It’s an anecdote because it goes with Aloha Vita: The natives of Hawaii called the arriving white man HA-OLE. The man without breath. The missionaries were probably under a lot of stress…
ALOHA, the greeting of Hawaii is called in its deeper meaning: “in the presence of” (ALO) “breath of life” (HA). This also stands for love, compassion and affection at the same time, which fits well with deep listening, doesn’t it?
Deep listening will catapult you forward!
Here is an overview of what you can achieve through deep listening:
- Real dialogue, real learning and so more ideas and implementations
- Faster results, more productive meetings
- Less superfluous or inappropriate things are said, you get to the point faster
- Real encounter with a person, you learn something new about this person, because who only talks about himself, hears what he already knows!
- You give your counterpart the greatest gift there is: To give him your undivided attention. To give him space to express himself. This builds sympathy and possibly real friendships.
- There are fewer misunderstandings and disputes
- You remain much more relaxed in the conversation and appear more trusting
- You can help to control a meeting that drifts away – because you can consciously notice and react to it. When you connect with your breath and are in the here and now, you relax your nervous system and become calmer and more serene overall.
- You bring consciousness into the situation – and that is really important in today’s hectic and distracted world!
Deep listening in everyday life – just do it!
I successfully apply deep listening in my private and professional life.
In coaching, it signals to my coachee that I really see him and that he can be there with everything he wants to show.
In process facilitator training, for example, it helps the participants to gain a better understanding of their task, interface workshops conflicts are solved more quickly and old barriers are removed, and in leadership development, it helps those affected to gain a better understanding of their colleagues and employees.
Try it out: In the next conversation, connect with your breathing and listen at the same time. Observe your thoughts, the urgent impulse to communicate. See where this impulse comes from and whether it is now useful for the conversation. Then act.