A colleague called me on Monday morning asking for some time to talk something through. She talked. I listened. It was a complicated story that unfolded slowly. I listened some more - unsure of what to say or what she wanted from me. After several minutes of mostly monologue, she arrived at a solution that she was rather pleased about. She thanked me profusely, and the call ended.
I was left with the strange feeling of wondering what I had contributed to that conversation. And then it dawned on me. She had wanted space to think. Without pressure to explain, provide perspective, or take on board someone else's advice/opinion, she beautifully navigated her way to her best options.
Leaders in the field of listening such as Nancy Klein and Susan Scott make it clear that we can all long to be heard. They both make the point that people are remarkable creative and resourceful – if allowed the space to think independently.
We are poor at creating spaces where we truly listen to others and where they are empowered to think for themselves. Meetings often seem about whom shouts the loudest – ensuring many quieter voices give up trying contribute. In fact, meetings seem more about talking than listening.
A recent Harvard Business review blog sums it up beautifully:
"It can be stated, with practically no qualification," Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens write in a 1957 HBR article, "That people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening."
Driven by constraints of travel and virtual working, we further undermine the spaces for listening. We choose to have important discussions via email instead. A client team recently completed the vision/mission exercise via email. It won't surprise you to know it was a poor output with little support.
Many managers measure their contribution in a conversation based on the degree of interjection and brilliant insight – often not requested. It's hardly surprising that the 'open door' policy touted by so many senior people – including my clients – fails miserably.
Time and time again, coach clients tell me how thrilled they are to be able to talk through what's in their heads. These people have everything you could possibly imagine in technology, support staff and office space to make their lives easier and allow them to excel in service of the organisation.
Except they are not given time or space to think independently. What a waste. As Nancy Klein puts it: "Thinking for yourself is the one thing on which everything else depends."
We need to learn to shut-up in order to allow other people the space to think. Let us grow our capacity to be with silence – a sure sign that someone is thinking. Let us shift the balance in how we define our value and self-worth. Our colleagues and staff have more to offer if only we'd let them.