Deep listening — a productivity hack for leaders

Gulshan Walia | Updated on November 07, 2019

Four ways in which you can adopt the practice of stethoscopic hearing

The doctor puts the stethoscope to the patient’s chest, and starts listening through the earpieces. She can hear the blood pumping, and the air moving through the lungs.

These sounds are vital to her, as they tell her “what’s going on” with her patient. When the doctor is listening to these sounds, she is focussed only on them. In those moments of listening, there is nothing else that is competing for her attention.

There may be a useful prescription for leaders here — the practice of stethoscopic deep listening, defined as “Listening with complete attention, by being fully present to the individual with you”. It means listening to the spoken and the unspoken, to the gushes and the pauses, to the voice of reason, as well as the voice of emotion.

In reality, it’s a tough task to listen so deeply. There are the external disturbances of a connected world — phones, social media and meetings. Even when one shuts these off, there is the loud clamour of internal chatter — a leader’s inner world of fears and anxieties. This noise is even more difficult to turn off.

First, ensure that you feel heard

It’s lonely at the top, and many leaders may not have “safe” spaces where they can pour themselves out, without fear of judgment. It’s important to give yourself permission to be a “mere mortal”, who has normal human needs to share his fears, anxieties and passions. Finding this “safe” space is important to your emotional stability, which directly impacts your effectiveness as a leader. Now, let’s look at some deep listening skills:

1) Tell your mind to shut up and listen: We speak at an average rate of 125-150 words per minute (wpm), and the mind can grasp up to about 300 wpm or even more. So, while listening to someone, the mind has enough unutilised capacity to gladly run into its fantasies, fears, weekend getaways and what to eat for dinner. Be aware of the mind’s tendency to betray you, and don’t give in to its distractions. Do a mental check from time to time, reminding yourself to align your body language (eye contact, leaning forward, nods) and verbal cues to ensure that you are “fully present” while listening.

2) Turn off your inner judge: As you are listening, the judge sitting inside you keeps passing verdicts — good/bad, right/wrong. Turn it off. Try to listen with an open mind, paying attention to the other person’s experience. The experience is very real for her, and she is trying to bring you into her world to see things from her perspective. Replace the inner judge with empathy, trying to get into the other person’s shoes, and learn where it pinches. When you listen with empathy, the person feels safe and comfortable to share her thoughts honestly.

3) Reflect and inquire: Good listeners provide a lot of clarity to the speaker. They do this with the twin skills of reflection and inquiry. Often times, people seek someone to hear them out because there is just “too much going on in their head”. There are knots, twists, tangles and dead-ends in their thoughts. The listener reflects back the person’s thoughts. “If I understand correctly, you are saying …..”, and the speaker responds to it. The listener then asks deeper questions — “What is the exact concern? Is it this or is it that? How does this make you feel?” This back and forth churning makes the person go deep within to search for answers. And it is in this search for answers that many knots in his thinking are untangled, suddenly everything appears much clearer.

4) Calm yourself: Your own emotional state is an indicator of your ability to listen. You cannot listen well when you are experiencing extreme emotions. Try to pace out meetings where you need to listen deeply. If you have a stormy issue to deal with, don’t schedule a critical meeting right after that. Give yourself time to get back to your centre and re-balance yourself, so that you can serve as a calm receptacle when you have to listen deeply.

Now go ahead, make a start with deep listening, you should soon be able to see the positive results for yourself!

Gulshan Walia is an HR Consultant and Coach specialising in leadership development and performance management

Published on November 07, 2019

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