THE ART OF LISTENING
Cathy Rose Salit
I led a workshop recently called “The Art of Listening: To Customers, Colleagues and Partners,” hosted by Steve Ronson from A&E and Phil Terry of the Creative Good Councils. We had a great group of workshop participants — senior executives from financial services, fashion, technology, publishing and consumer products.
If you know me or Performance of a Lifetime, then you can probably guess that this was not your typical roundtable conversation with a slide deck and stats on listening — how most people don’t listen, why listening is a good idea, etc. While it’s all true, (a) everybody already knows it and (b) knowing it never made anybody better at it.
No — my love affair with listening started in improvisation, where it’s an art form. So, using exercises from the world of improvisation and theater, I had the workshop participants “perform as listeners.” It was a non-cognitive “lesson” in how to listen, and the participants said they felt both very challenged and refreshingly surprised by what they experienced.
I want to share three of the things that stood out for me from the workshop:
Good listening means not listening for anything. Good listening is listening to (and being with) another human being. Listening for something overly determines what we can hear. It narrows down what’s possible, and causes us to miss the range of all that’s before and around us. Listening for often means that we (think we) already know what’s about to be said, what’s about to happen, or what’s important. On a personal level it can block out, distort, or dismiss another human being. On a business level it’s a barrier to relationship-building, opportunity, and innovation.
Silence is (better than) golden. One of the exercises was particularly challenging: two people have a brief conversation about something important to them, in which — after the first person speaks — each has to look at the other in silence for 15 seconds before replying. This had a huge impact in the room. “We never allow that to happen,” one participant said, “to be that trusting and vulnerable with someone at work.” Others described it as creating a space for connecting with another human being, and talked about how being listened to and looked at in this way made them more thoughtful and open in what they shared. We talked about whether it’s possible to make better (deeper, fuller, richer) connections with people at work. Would it help people to collaborate, to engage? Can this kind of (dare I call it) intimacy motivate people to do their best and give more, while feeling (and being) appreciated by others?
The listening that we were performing is different from what we usually think of as listening. We tend to treat listening and talking (especially in business) as an information transaction: “you tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine.” In the workshop, our listening was all about building and creating with others, the way improvisers do. Improvisers listen and unconditionally say “yes!” to what they hear and see. Then they add to it, expand it, maybe take it down a road we don’t expect — but they’re always working with what they’ve heard. That kind of listening makes the other people (in the scene, the play, or the Tuesday morning staff meeting) look good because you’re treating what they say and do as important, as a gift that you now have the opportunity to build with. Now that’s active listening!
I’m pretty passionate about the Art of Listening. By “performing listening” together we can build a respectful, surprising and dynamic conversation of possibility. What do you think?