Can you guess what skill can improve all of your personal and professional relationships? It can even save a marriage, get you that promotion, and increase your income. I bet you might have an idea. You may have even heard this before. It is the nearly lost art of listening.
Now hold on a second, don’t just nod your head with a “oh yeah, sure, I know how to listen” comment in your head. Because what most of us do on a daily basis is far from the kind of listening I’m talking about. This isn’t just passively hearing and registering information. This isn’t noticing what other people say so you can springboard your next comment off of theirs. The kind of listening I’m talking about is the subject of Jeff Lazarus’ book Listen Like A Dog: Make Your Mark on The World.
But how can someone write an entire book about listening, you might be asking yourself. The answer to that is that there is a lot more to listening than most people think. It is hard to do. It takes effort and training. Well, for us humans it does anyway. This kind of deep, intense, full body listening is perfectly natural to our canine companions.
In Chapter 1: Violating the Leash Laws, Jeff explains that the reason so many of us struggle with listening is two-fold. First, we all think we’re already good at listening. And secondly, we don’t think there is anything special about listening that we need to learn. After all, wasn’t listening one of the very first skills we learned as infants? Even before we learned to walk, talk, or anything else? It seems like it should come naturally. And while some of it does, particularly the part about taking cues from what we hear, the part that often is forgotten is that we should be listening to understand. To really understand. Here are a few examples of what Jeff calls “Leash Law Violations” that almost all of us do, at least some of the time. When we violate these laws, it means that we are NOT listening.
Leash Law Violations
“I’ll stop you right there.” aka, interrupting. This is number one because people interrupt other people all the time. This usually happens either when we think we already know what they are going to say (really?), or when we aren’t actually interested in what they are trying to say. The result of this is the other person feels negated, devalued, invalidated. Then they shut down.
“That’s my cue!” aka mentally rehearsing what to say next. This is when someone else has the “stage” and you are pacing in the wings, rehearsing your big scene. The moment you start preparing what you are going to say next, you are no longer really listening to what the other person has to say, you aren’t trying to understand anymore, and you will probably miss out on something really important.
“Uh-huh… Yeah… Got ya… Mm-hmm… For sure…” aka verbal noise making. Go on, admit it. You’ve done this before. Especially on the phone when you want someone to think you are paying attention while you are really writing an email, texting or maybe just playing Candy Crush on your phone. And while it can occasionally be helpful, especially on the phone, to make some kind of sound to let the person on the other end know that you are still there, mindless noise making is more about putting on a show of listening, rather than actually listening.
“Why, that’s fascinating…” aka daydreaming. Many people, while pretending to listen, mentally wander off to someplace more interesting. Daydreaming is a great way to avoid engaging with topics we find boring. But on some level, can’t you feel it when someone you are talking to has mentally wandered off to think about their next vacation instead of the topic you want to discuss with them?
“I have a cousin who likes pistachios.” aka derailing the conversation. Have you ever met someone who has an uncanny ability to derail conversations with random side comments? We’ve all done it at some point. The person speaking makes a passing reference to it, and we latch onto it and launch a new line of chatter, which most likely does not serve the point of the conversation. Jeff gives the example of a client mentioning Scotland as they speak, and the listener chiming in “My wife and I went to Scotland last summer. We Saw wild ponies!” and suddenly the conversation is about ponies.
“The bear that attacked me was even bigger!” aka needing to “top” the other person. This is one of the most obnoxious leash-law violations and we all know someone who does this. Most of us have probably done it at some point too, in spite of how much we hate it when other people do it to us. It usually comes from a need to feel smarter, funnier, more experienced, or more accomplished than the person speaking, or that we have suffered more. Ah, the Misery Olympics. Seriously, why do any of us ever do this?
“Be with you in juuuuuust a sec!” aka dividing our attention. Have you ever been talking to someone when you catch them reading an email or sending a text under the table? Or have you been caught doing it? It’s kind of like the husband watching the game on TV saying to his wife “Go ahead, I’m listening…” only to start shouting the next second about a goal or a foul or something. Divided attention is not listening. Usually, it’s insulting. Better to either stop what you are doing and really listen, or let the other person know that you can give them your undivided attention in a few minutes when you have finished the current critical task.
“I’ll tell you exactly what you need to do.” aka offering immediate solutions. A really annoying leash law violation is to jump in and try to solve someone’s problem before they have even finished explaining it. The goal of listening is to understand, not to diagnose, prescribe, fix, or solve. After the person has fully had their say on the matter, then it is reasonable to ask the person if they want your advice or suggestions. If they don’t, DON’T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO! If they do want your advice and suggestions, then, and only then, try offering some possible solutions. Many people just want to be heard out. And sometimes they can find their own solutions once they have a sounding board where they can verbalize what’s going on with them.
“The runaway train.” aka failing to shut your trap for three consecutive seconds. Many people don’t realize they have weak listening skills because they never stop talking long enough to even give it a try. People in this category tend to think that conversations exist to give them a platform from which to speak and they think of the other person involved as a captive audience. No one wants to be captive to this. Stop. Shut your mouth. Listen.
“But you said I could…” aka the joys of selective listening. Kids are sooo good at this. But so are adults. Haven’t we all, at some point in life, taking the part of what someone said that we liked and just ran with it, pretending it gave us permission for something, that when taken in whole, meant something else entirely?
But you said you were fine.” aka listening to only the words, not the emotions. Anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship can probably relate to this one. How often do all of us say we are fine when we are feeling very far from fine? Someone who only hears the words might shrug it off and think, well at least I asked. She said she was fine, so I will assume that everything is fine. But when you listen not just to the words but to the inflection, the tone, the tremor in the voice and look at the body language, the facial expression and everything else, then you are truly listening.
This list of leash laws gives you a very good idea of the depth that Jeff goes to in his book and gives you an idea of how little most of us really think about how well (or poorly) we listen. Recognize some of these behaviors in yourself? I sure do. But not to fear! Jeff has suggestions for how to improve! Another great example I want to share is his advice on how to listen better. Below is the Heel, Sit & Stay Model for how to become a better listener.
The Heel, Sit & Stay Model (HSS)
Listen to the other party without interrupting. And here’s a twist: actually consider what is being said.
Pause. Yes- pause instead of rushing on to your response or your next point.
Acknowledge what the other party has said and demonstrate an understanding of the other party’s position (or ask to clarify if necessary).
Weigh the new input against your tentative position. Adjust your position if needed.
Communicate your position (revised, if appropriate) to the other party.
Return to Step 1, rinse and repeat until the communication loop is complete and you are cleared for landing.
After all that can you really say that you are being the best listener you can possibly be? Want to improve your listening to improve all of the most important relationships in your life? Then go check out Jeff’s book right here. You’ll be glad you did!