Connection: starts with listening, deepens with empathy

Part 1: Are you Listening

Most of the hands in the conference room go up. I have just asked a group of leaders in an emotional intelligence workshop: “Is there anyone in the room who would like to improve their listening?”  

The interest in improving listening skills has been alive over the past few years, particularly as we acknowledge how frequently we are distracted by our busyness and technology, and as we consider the impact that attending to what is in front of us, including people, can make in the quality of work life and relationships. 

Alan Alda, whom you may recall was Hawkeye in the 70’s TV series MASH, is one of many, with a mission to contribute to meaningful communication and connections. His humanitarian efforts support the science of communication, emphasizing the value of empathy, authenticity and clarity in communication. Alda’s approach is aligned with the work of Marshall Rosenberg, with whom I have trained, and whose NonViolent Communication techniques (often referred to as compassionate communication) had a significant influence on my connections with myself and others, and continue to inform my work. Alda’s podcast, Clear and Vivid: Conversations about connecting and communicating, features spirited conversations on connection and communication, and is just one aspect of his work in this area.

Their work, and that of many others, suggests communication starts with listening. Most of us don’t need convincing that deepening our listening skills can serve both our relationships and ourselves in meaningful ways.  Yet, we are often challenged to remember to listen or to find ways to enhance how we practice. 

As a facilitator, I suggest we need to remember, first, to just stop and listen.  I often draw on a story told to me by a colleague and friend, Steven Lake, author of talk2ME How to communicate with women.  Steven shared the story of how he encourages men in his workshops to stop, look, listen.  For example, he says, Stop: put down the remote, Look: turn away from the screen, look at your partner and Listen: attend. Of course this applies to all of us in all areas of life. At work, when someone comes to your office, Stop what you are doing, look at your colleague and listen. And even if this is not a good time for you to listen, taking the time to attend, will help you provide a response that acknowledges both them and your situation.

It can be humbling to check in on how we typically ‘listen’. When others are talking do we find ourselves thinking of helping, ignoring, or ready to tell a story. I like using the handout How are you listening as a check-in on our listening habits. For me, as someone who likes to help, I often find myself giving suggestions or advice, rather than being with that person, or asking questions.

As we explore this topic further, participants often think about their home and work lives, recognizing they listen in different ways in different situations. Sometimes they come back the next day with a story about having practiced Stop, Look, Listen.  Kids are especially entranced when we stop, look and listen. I recall several stories of participants saying they just stopped and sat down at the table with their child and totally attended to them for a time.  They felt more connected to their child and often noticed a light in their child’s eyes.

So the impact of basic attending can be powerful. We feel seen and heard, and conversations and connections can be memorable. Years ago, I was attending a Leadership Conference and thought leader forum in Toronto.  Ken Dryden, then the President of the Toronto Maple Leafs was one of the speakers. One of the things he said was ‘great leaders speak only after years of listening’. That stayed with me. I was keen to talk to him, about listening, and I also wanted to get an autograph from him for my mom. My mom was an enthusiastic Montreal Canadiens hockey fan and Dryden, a former goalie on the team, was one of her favorite players.  When I was chatting with him, he was curious about my interest in leadership, the potential of listening, and wanted to know more about my mom, where she lived, how a woman from the prairies ended up a Montreal fan (not so popular where she lived at that time).  He signed a piece of paper with a few words for my mom, which she kept as one of her few pieces of memorabilia until she passed away. What really stood out for me from our interaction was how attentive he was. I felt seen and heard, especially when I realized there was a long line up of people waiting to talk to him. I expect you can recall a time when you were really listened to and how it impacted you.  

This is the beginning of deep listening – being intentional and paying attention. Of all the topics or skills I teach on, the topic of listening has such potential to enhance our leadership and lives. It is common at the end of a workshop where listening has been part of our discussion, for participants to say they are leaving, wanting to be a better listener, and intend to use  Stop, Look and Listen as a reminder. I like to imagine how all these moments of attending can affect our organizations, homes and culture. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article…The Power of Empathy.  If we want to enhance our connection to another, especially in the face of differences, or when someone is emotionally upset, then listening empathically will make a significant difference.  

The most important moment is this moment and the most important conversation is the one you are in. Deepak Chopra

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