Listening… Really Listening
by Bill Catlette
Recently, I came uncomfortably close to dying in a well-equipped, modern, metropolitan hospital emergency room, a building that I had walked into under my own power. The cause of the near death experience was preventable. It had nothing to do with staffing shortages, Obamacare, or a packed emergency department. Rather, it had a lot to do with listening, specifically the lack thereof. Listening, really listening.
I’ve thought a lot about that experience over the last few weeks, (and will doubtless continue to do so), but while it’s fresh on my mind, here are a few tips that each of us can benefit from, whether we work in healthcare or not.
- Take a slow, deep breath. Listening is work, but it’s seldom painful. Relax the speaker too, by being open to hearing what they have to say. Smile. If most of your listening takes place via phone, put a small mirror on your desk. Glance in that mirror to confirm a smile before picking up the phone. Look, this is not just a matter of being nice. It’s about optimizing conditions whereby both of you can speak and be heard.
- Take notes. Yes, notes! They got you through school; they won’t hurt you now. Get some 3’ x 5” cards or a small notebook, and use them. The very act of writing down what someone is saying to you implies respect, and besides, in our always on multi-tasking world, you’ll remember it better.
- Even if you are a doctor, lawyer, consultant, rocket scientist… Don’t be guilty of framing your response while the other person’s lips are still moving. They just might be trying to tell you something worth knowing. Don’t interrupt! And if your lips fly open the nanosecond that theirs close, you haven’t been listening at all. You’ve been waiting to talk. Stop it! Resolve to insert at least a three (3) second silent pause between their thoughts and yours. You’ll be amazed at what it does for your conversations.
- Remove barriers to listening, physical barriers and otherwise. Face the person. As best you can, get at eye level with them. Unplug. Let them know, as I did to a hospital Intensivist, who had just mentioned the words, “life-threatening bleed” that they have your undivided attention.
- Know when to ‘take it offline’, or to defer the conversation. Some conversations are better held face-to-face, and not over the phone or online. Respect those moments, and get in the same airspace with the other person. And while we’re on the subject, don’t confuse emailing or texting with really making meaning. More often than not, all we’re doing might be better described as sequential emoting. There isn’t a lot of listening going on. There are also times when, due to unavoidable circumstances, you simply cannot, at that moment, give the other person the attention they deserve. Say so, and set a mutually convenient time in the near future to have the conversation.
- Notice the color of the other person’s eyes. You don’t have to peer deeply into them (unless it’s a date :-), but do notice their eye color. You’ll remember better, really.
- Ask clarifying questions. Use the phrase, “Please tell me more” to seek understanding. If you are uncertain of their meaning, ask them to “connect the dots” or “paint a picture” for you. They won’t think you’re stupid or be put off by the lack of the familiar “uh-huh.”
- Notice non-verbals and gaps that may point to things the speaker isn’t saying, things that may be every bit as important as what they are Pay attention to differences between what’s written on their face, and what’s coming out of their mouth. You can, for example, smell fear on a person’s breath, but you’ve got to get close enough to find out.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement Bill Catlette is an Executive Coach, Advisor to Management, Keynote Speaker, and Author. He helps leaders connect the dots between People, Passion, Performance and Profit, hone their leadership skills, and achieve demonstrably better outcomes.