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As an employee of a communications company, everyone on our team feels the added pressure to be a strong communicator. How good are we? listen What customers tell us determines whether they believe we can help them transform.
The truth is that we haven’t been consistently good at it. When two of my senior executives came up to me a few years ago and said, “Nancy, we have a hearing problem here at Duarte,” I wasn’t shocked. We had several projects that we misjudged and misjudged. Our communications experts found that when they met with clients to begin work on a project, the scope and goals were often different than what they were told – a situation that was both frustrating and costly.
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I’ve written about the importance of customizing your message if you want someone to take your recommendation and how to make sure your team understands the decisions you want to be involved in. But what about strategies to be a better listener? As a leader, I knew that listening was essential. I had watched myself and most of the leaders I knew struggle, and it was clear that we could do better.
We are all guilty of having a hearing gap at least temporarily. Think of this as the difference between the speaker’s interaction goal – what they want to get out of the conversation – and how the listener actually reacts. Each of us has a standard listening style, but it doesn’t always align with what the person speaking to us wants or needs at that moment.
More than I should admit, my leaders — and, frankly, my children — had walked out on a conversation with me, feeling like they hadn’t been heard. When our HR team interviewed my leaders, I learned that they didn’t feel as celebrated as they needed to because I was so excited to step in and move them forward. On a more personal level, my son avoided meaningful conversations because I always wanted to push his cause even when he didn’t want me to do it.
To be clear, I thought I was a pretty good listener. The effects of my listening behavior eluded me until I took the course set up by two Duarte communication strategists, Nicole Lowenbraun and Maegan Stephens. With her training and coaching, I began to understand that there is more to listening than giving the speaker your full attention or putting down the phone (although both are still essential). Tips like “Avoid Judgment” don’t take into account the times when our colleagues, customers and suppliers actually want pressure us to test what they say. Even the much-vaunted practice of active listening falls short.
What I have learned is this: There is no one right way to listen the whole time.
Instead, great listeners adjust the way they listen to help the speaker achieve something her aim and hit her needs. Each of us may be rooted in a particular listening style, but the good news is that once we recognize this pattern, we can adjust our approach to choose the most effective form of listening for a given situation.
Four listening styles for four types of situations
Lowenbraun and Stephens claim that there are infinitely many answers to the question “What does the speaker want from me?”. There are only four in the workplace – too Diveto Recognizeto Advance paymentor to Support. (See “The Four Types of Adaptive Listening.”)
Here’s what these concepts mean and how to choose when to use them.
Speakers sometimes need a listener to immerse themselves. There are many situations in the workplace where the speaker needs the listener to absorb the material they are providing without comment or judgement—to simply immerse themselves in what is being conveyed. When the speaker’s message is meant to inform, an immersive listener makes sure they understand. When someone says, “I’m here today to give you an update” or “This is important for you to know,” that’s your cue to being an immersive listener. You can take notes, mentally catalog the information you hear, or ask clarifying questions to confirm what you’ve heard. The speaker’s main goal is for you to be a content sponge.
Speakers sometimes need an audience to differentiate. It is common for us to need guidance at certain points in our working lives. When the people we work with aren’t sure what’s going well and what’s not, they often look for someone to help them weigh the strengths and weaknesses of their situation or project. If the speaker says something like “I need feedback on this” or “I’m not sure if that makes sense,” that’s your signal that you’re a discerning listener. They can help the speaker spot red flags and locate positives. You can respond in a way that helps the speaker break away or consider alternative approaches.
Speakers sometimes need a listener to get ahead. When the people we work with are results-focused or pressed for time, they often need an advance listener to help them move projects and processes forward. If they say, “We have to make a decision on this” or “I don’t know how to finish this project,” that is a clue to you as an Advance listener. You can offer a decision, do some of the work yourself, or help delegate tasks to help the speaker reach the finish line. Again, you should only do this if you know it fits the purpose of the person speaking to you.
Speakers sometimes need an audience for support. Everyone experiences challenges at work as well as victories. Both situations are opportunities to make a human connection. Being a successful support listener means you acknowledge and reflect the speaker’s feelings. When they say, “I’m having a terrible day” or “I have the best news,” that’s your cue to be a support listener. You can respond with words and actions that validate the speaker’s feelings. Depending on the context and situation, you are the confidant or the cheerleader.
Move forward with empathy
I still haven’t mastered listening properly all the time. But understanding these options gets me there. I know my default style of advance listening is needed at least sometimes, but I’ve also started to catch myself when a different style would be better. I use support listening more for my executives. It improves our relationships one on one and as a team. For my son, I’m adapting to become an immerse listener. It works so well that last Christmas he gave me a one-hour chat every Sunday morning. Learning to listen in this new way opens doors to richer and more meaningful interactions.
The entire Duarte team has gone through this training with significant results. For example, our internal teams have reported greater efficiency in their interactions, while sales teams have built more trust and influence with customers. As one of our sales leaders put it, “Helping others feel heard the way they need to be is a game changer.” After using the Adaptive Listening Framework, this leader now describes sales pitches as more empathetic, saying that customer-centric listening brings “real Partnerships and Cooperations”. This is a far cry from the poor estimates and misquotations that we saw on our projects prior to the introduction of Adaptive Listening.
We are often asked by clients and workshop participants: “Why can’t I just ask people what kind of listening they want?” The truth is that in some situations this is a perfect approach. But we’ve found that the most influential communicators can find out what the speaker wants with very little effort — and they can too without additional burden on the speaker.
If you want to listen better and increase your influence in the process, ask yourself, “What does the speaker want from me?” In most cases, they need more than eye contact and a nod, especially in the workplace. You become more valuable by customizing the how you to need she listen. This leads to better results. To learn what your own standard listening style is, take the Adaptive Listening Assessment we developed.
Every working day is dynamic and all our teams and colleagues need different things at different times. It’s not always easy for leaders to see people’s goals as they speak. But if we’re willing to adapt and step outside of our default styles, we’ll be on our way to becoming more compassionate and effective listeners.