“The fundamental cause of nearly all communication problems is that people don’t listen to understand; they listen to reply.”

John Maxwell & Les Parrott, 25 Ways to Win with People (Nelson Books, 2005)

This statement hit me between the eyes. It is a classic trap we all fall into on a regular basis, especially when we are stressed or under time-pressure. My husband used to tell me I was particularly guilty of this, often completing his sentences before he even finished what he had to say. He was right. How many of us jump to conclusions before our children complete their often slow and meandering explanation of what happened to them in the playground; how they fell short in a test, or when they are spilling the beans about a friendship break up? And how many of us are really listening to our colleagues in meetings when we are fighting for air time to be seen and recognised, to stand out ourselves?

Conversation is actually a really a poor form of communication precisely because we are listening with the intention to reply to the other person rather than really dropping fully into the present and hearing them. We are always in the process of moving beyond this conversation to a solution, sometimes missing the point and the moment, making the other person speaking feel sidelined.

Says David Burns, a medical doctor and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, “The biggest mistake you can make in trying to talk convincingly is to put your highest priority on expressing your ideas and feelings. What most people really want is to be listened to, respected, and understood.” This is a skill we ll need to learn, but it is particularly important if you are leading a team in business or raising a family.

This means listening not just to what is being said but listening between the lines. It’s about tuning in and listening with your heart in addition to your ears not just to the words. Leadership expert, John Maxwell, calls this listening aggressively. I would call it listening with intention in order to hear not just the words, but the spaces between them and to what is not being said. It requires that you be fully present, in the moment, whether you are communicating with your child, your partner, a friend or a colleague at work.

Strategies for listening intentionally with both your ears and your heart:

  • Disconnect from technological distractions
  • Be open and not defensive
  • Be curious – you don’t have all the answers, and you may be surprised
  • Don’t jump to conclusions
  • Try and walk a mile in the other person’s shoes

Take aways for winning at home and life:

  • Our kids are full of thoughts, feelings, their own experiences of the world and great ideas
  • The more receptive you are the more they will share
  • The more they share the more they trust you
  • The more they trust you the deeper and stronger your relationship will be
  • The stronger your relationship the more likely they will be to turn to you in times of uncertainty or crisis – you want to be their first port of call no matter what
  • You want them to continue to share their amazing ideas with you because you don’t shoot them down, you engage with them
  • You need to be that empathic listener who reflects their feelings and situation back at them and empowers them to find their own solution most of the time
  • Don’t fall into the trap of wanting to rescue them all the time as that creates dependence not independence
  • Manage devices when you are communicating with your family members – you don’t have a lot of face to face time so avoid taking calls especially when important stuff is going down – they need to feel they are at the top of your list of priorities

Take aways for winning at work:

  • Manage devices when you are with colleagues – nothing breaks a moment of presence than the interruption of a cellphone
  • Take a moment to stop trying to compete in a conversation and just sit back and listen with your whole self and feel the difference
  • Try a different type of communication when you have some time at your disposal where each party gets an agreed uninterrupted time of say ten minutes during which they hold the floor without any interruptions or responses. Then you get to do the same – not to reply to them, but to put your thoughts, feelings and ideas on the table. Only after that can you go into conversation. This way, no-one is competing for airtime and there is more clarity to their thoughts and ideas and nothing interrupts their constructive thinking.
  • When people understand the process and that they are guaranteed a turn, they relax because they are not pre-occupied waiting and trying to spot the gap. They are going to get a chance to say their piece.
  • Create a positive and supportive thinking environment in your team to get the best out of them by:
    • Paying attention
    • Listening with palpable respect and without interruption
    • Giving equal turns to think and speak which provides freedom from internal urgency driven by the thought “will I get a turn to speak?”
  • It is not IQ, education, experience or power that enables people to think clearly and creatively, it is the way that they are treated by those they are with when they are thinking that is most important – it’s about creating a conducive environment
  • We make time to think, brainstorm and communicate but we need to change the way we treat each other while we are doing these things to get the best results – it shows that we value people and their ideas and that our way is not the only way!

There is great truth in the old adage that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you really care and you want to make your child, spouse, partner, colleague, team member or boss feel respected and validated then unclog your ears, and open your heart. Listen with your whole being. All in. Now that’s real listening.

It takes some practice but it’s well worth it for the results of connectedness, engagement and idea generation. Learning how to listen well in teams is communication 101 – an essential piece of training.

Human Potential and Parenting Expert, speaker and author: Helping you win at work and life