One of the things I love about Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps is that so many of the remedies she offers are practical and effective. At least they have been for me and many of my coachees.
Here’s one of my favorites, offered ostensibly to undo the mindtrap of always wanting to be right. I say ‘ostensibly’ because I find this usefully applies to a vast number of situations.
It involves doing something that sounds easy yet is rarely done: Listening to learn.
Berger argues there are three kinds of listening: Listening to win (most common); listening to fix (common) and listening to learn (rare). I’d like to add a fourth, that might be just as common as listening to win: waiting to speak.
The typology is as follows:
1. Waiting to speak.
Ever been in a meeting where people take turns talking but there’s no conversation thread? Sounds more like a series of non sequiturs? If you answer no, I’m guessing you don’t go to meetings much. This involves no real listening at all. While other people talk you are basically rehearsing whatever it is you want to say. Maybe I’m the only one habitually guilty of this but I kinda don’t think so.
2. Listening to win.
Welcome to the volcanic screaming match that is social media. We do this (OK I do this) in big and small ways. When I see someone espousing Trumpism or racism, I am constantly scanning for a way to strike back. I want to attack not only the speech but the speaker. My heartrate increases. I can feel blood rushing to my head. And if I let loose, guess what happens? I trigger an equal and opposite reaction on the other side. Social trench warfare ensues.
But this habit crops up in subtler ways. If my wife and I watch a movie and one of us likes it and the other hates it, emotional tension rises. How can she not like it? What’s wrong with her? These thoughts arise unbidden and trigger a complex of reactions that often end up with my starting a really stupid argument. The programming for this conflict is written on our DNA. It’s up to us to derail this impulse before things get out of hand.
There’s an even subtler form of listening to win. Someone says something that threatens your sense of self or your sense of dignity. Again, the initial response is automatic. Someone starts mansplaining or womansplaining (I’m sorry but that’s a thing too) something I know perfectly well and I spend the next 30 seconds conjuring all the ways I think that person is an idiot. This is kind of a hybrid of waiting to speak and listening to win actually, because you’re not really listening at all at this point.
3. Listening to fix.
This can be 100% well-intentioned. Your best friend comes to you fresh off a bad work conflict or a break-up. You really want to help, to make her feel better or to offer ways to address the situation. While this is not inherently bad, it does lead you to filter and distort what the other person is saying. You’re filtering for clues about what you can say or what ideas you can offer for helping your friend. And you’re filtering out quite a lot of other context and information. And honestly this may be as much about you as about your friend.
4. Listening to learn.
Here is the holy grail of listening. You are non-judgmentally taking in what the other person is saying. Your goal is to understand what they are saying and to understand where they are coming from without your own ego-driven real-time reactions and interpretations getting in the way.
This is quite hard actually, but when you can pull it off – or at least almost pull it off – it can be transformational. I’ve had a couple of experiences recently where someone was talking who, for some reason or another, I found really irritating. Maybe they were monopolizing a group or repeating a point that had been made six times or just had ‘one of those voices’ that cause psychic pain. With Mindtraps fully in mind, I consciously shifted my focus from the person to the content of what they were saying. Somewhere in the back of my mind they were still annoying, but the distraction of my annoyance was diminished enough so that I could hear more. And you know what? Sometime they were saying a lot. And even when they weren’t i didn’t spend half the meeting being triggered.
Very humbling and very instructive.
So here’s how to start. Get mindful about how you are listening in each conversation you have today. What’s really going on? What thoughts and feelings are arising? What’s your real goal in this moment. The more you see it, the more options you’ll have to choose how you listen rather than letting outdated brain software lead you astray.
You hear me?