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The art of deep listening

By Manu Henrard on 07/06/2017

Would you trust an executive coach or a recruiter who struggles to really listen to you?

Now is the time to listen

I have spent much of my professional life in conversation with senior executives. I talk with them about their careers, their dreams, their challenges, and am constantly looking for ways to help them achieve their full potential.

I built a sustainable business and a strong professional image based on these conversations.  However, several years ago, I realised something strange. The more I felt I understood and could advise my clients, the less I was truly listening to what they really needed.

In fact, in my 20 years as a recruiter and coach, I felt I hadn’t learned to be a better listener. I had literally “unlearned” how to listen. And I needed to figure out why that was.

The conclusion I came to was this: the more successful you become, the more positive reinforcement you get and the more you are tempted to listen to your own thoughts instead of connecting to the people around you. I believe this is what happened to me. 

Does it sound familiar? Do some people around you feel you’re not always present during conversations? Do you sometimes feel you don’t get the level of trust you deserve from your teams? Then maybe it’s time to rethink the way you listen.

Listening is about interpretation – creating a story around what is said. I began to realise the stories I created were more influenced by my personal way of making sense of things and less by what was really happening during these conversations. I understood what was well received by my peers, clients, candidates, and coaches. And over time, I developed a habit of delivering stories to delight myself and to be seen as successful, at least according to cultural norms.

I could have kept on working this way if it wasn’t for a sense of discomfort and an increasing feeling of loneliness. By losing my ability to listen well, I was becoming more and more disconnected from my environment. I was satisfying my need to predict and control my conversations but I had lost sight of my longing for authentic connections. And it was that longing that supported my ability to generate deep trust with my clients and to impact my community. 

There is no true listening without a true listener

Some time ago, I decided to focus my energy on learning what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls deep listening: “A way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment, without trying to control it or judge it. We let go of our inner clamouring and our usual assumptions and listen with respect for precisely what is being said.”

Driven by this approach, I started to train myself in these seven steps to access this state of deep listening:

1. Observe: Learning to listen starts with a practice of self-observation: observing how our bodies, our emotions and our thoughts directly influence our ability to listen well. Ask yourself this: if I’m not listening to my partner, then what am I listening to? Conversation with trusted partners and regular self-scanning practices usually help to generate this required level of awareness.

2. Centre: All the great wisdom traditions and many respected neuroscientists confirm that centring allows us to be more present, open and connected to the world around us. It also helps us to focus on what we care deeply about. It can be achieved through simple breathing practice and by aligning the body and mind so that we are grounded in the present moment.

3. Reshape: By consciously reshaping aspects of ourselves (our bodies, emotions or minds), we can literally become the listener. It takes regular practice, but we can learn to shape our bodies towards openness and our emotions towards curiosity or compassion. In our minds, we can learn to step back from our own stories and give space for the stories of others. In this way, we can truly welcome what the speaker needs to share.

While the first three steps aim at literally “becoming the listener”, the following four are interactions that will effectively support the practice of listening:

4. Invite: You can encourage people to speak in different ways – through physical actions such as nodding or verbal tracking using non-word sounds. When done consciously, these can be very powerful tools to encourage the speaker to keep sharing their story.

5. Question: There are many books on effective questioning and I won’t spend too much time on this one. When questioning, keep in mind the need to focus on gathering information instead of searching for confirmation of your own beliefs.

6. Connect beyond the words: Taking in the emotions behind words, body language and tone is a skill. But these are important sources of information that cannot be ignored. Believe me, by consciously choosing to listen to the emotion or the body of your partner you will get higher access to your intuition and you will bring the conversation to a much deeper level.

7. Practice being a listener without responding: Listen with the intention of not offering a solution. And if you still feel the need to talk, breathe first. Then, summarise, in your own words, the essence of what the speaker has just expressed. It is an extremely useful skill to check that you understand each other and to encourage both parties to go deeper into the conversation.

As you can see from the first three stages, creating a space for listening requires the ability to be present and aware of the place you are listening from. It is an art, and, for me, it has become a life practice – one of the core skills for effective coaching and recruiting.

It is also a basic skill for effective leadership – a path towards deeper connections, higher productivity and well-being. That’s why I invite leaders everywhere to join me and begin your own life journey towards deeper listening.

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