Respectful listening

Gustav Vigeland, The Vigeland Installation, Frogner Park

Following on from our recent posts about meetings, this week we are looking at the concept of respectful listening.

A leader in a difficult meeting said, “If I’ve listened carefully, I heard you say…”. Notice how the leader took responsibility for listening carefully to the speaker.

At a basic level, respectful listening involves maintaining focus and avoiding distractions.  Using the time while others are speaking to check emails or hold side conversations does more than distract the speaker and other listeners – it also defeats the purpose of your own presence in the conversation.

Some people see the time when others are speaking as an opportunity to plan their next comment. This means they are not part of the conversation because they are not truly present.

The result is they don’t actually hear what others have to say. Even if they catch the broad message, they will almost certainly miss:

  • the subtle nuances of what others are saying;
  • their implicit messages; and
  • the emotional content.

All these, of course, give powerful clues to what the speakers really care about, what they are worried about and what they really need to win in a negotiation.

To listen respectfully, you need to attend to what people are saying and what they mean. Try using these five steps before you respond with your own comment:

  1. Focus on the person and what they mean.
  2. Concentrate on what lies behind their comments as they speak.
  3. Consider their meaning before replying.
  4. Pause and take a breath before you respond.
  5. Then summarise what you’ve heard to make sure you’ve really understood them.

Associate Professor Will Felps of the University of NSW Business School has carried out research into what he calls ‘respectful inquiry’, which has a strong component of respectful listening and also flows from it.

‘Respectful inquiry…involves asking questions in an open way then listening attentively to the response. “These communication behaviours combine to signal the degree to which someone is encouraged to continue to share his/her thoughts on a subject during a conversation,”‘ he says.

Felps says there are three barriers to a “healthy level of questioning and listening”:

  1. simple egotism, or thinking about issues only from one’s own perspective;
  2. an old-school model of leadership, based on the idea that the job of a leader is to direct; and
  3. ‘threat rigidity’, or “the idea that when we are under stress we lose our will to explore”, which means that the time when respectful inquiry is most essential is also the time it is least likely to be utilised.

Listening respectfully and making respectful inquiry takes time, commitment and practice. It’s a more challenging way to have a conversation because it requires so much more attention. With practice, though, you will find the results far more rewarding, both at a personal and a professional level.