Whether “people” refers to your boss, your peers, your employees or your family members, it seems like we all want to understand the motivation of others.
We ask it about the people rioting in Baltimore or the politicians running for office. We ask it about those closest to us and those farthest away. Pundits talk about it on television and make bold prognostications and big data analysts claim to have us figured out down to that leopard-print leotard we bought on Amazon.
(You caught me)
But even big data can’t tell us what people really want, only how they are trying to get it. And that is a pretty large distinction. What are people looking for when they communicate out into the world? Why do they keep signaling? Maybe it is this:
So that someone who will listen
Yup. That’s the heart of it.
Most of the time when people talk they are experiencing something like this:
And on the other side, most people who talk are just basically vomiting words:
(Apparently in Spanish)
As Hazlitt once said in regards to coffeehouse politicians, “People do not seem to talk for the sake of expressing their opinions, but maintain an opinion for the sake of talking.”
But why do people talk and talk? What are they trying to accomplish? One interpretation is that people talk so much because they are afraid of never being heard. Or in other words, because no one really listens.
And it is true, no one really listens. In fact, we often have to pay to have someone listen to us.
Major Opportunity Alert
Want to set yourself apart from your peers?
Want to make an impact on your team or on the leadership in your organization?
Want to have more influence as a whole?
No, really listening to what people are saying. You will be shocked at the positive outcomes.
I recognize that this is difficult in organizations where time is one of the most valuable commodity, so let’s make some rules:
1. Be present (but have boundaries)
There is a reason why therapy sessions only last about 50 minutes on average. Otherwise no one would ever leave. If you are the leader, give yourself and the people in a meeting a time frame. Say, “I have five minutes (or whatever number makes sense) to listen to what you want me to hear.” Tell yourself that you only have to do this one thing for the next five minutes (or ten or fifteen) and that everything else can wait. Stay present and just let them talk.
2. Be curious
Don’t assume that you know what is going to be said. Take the time to let the story unfold and be open to the possibility that you don’t know the answer. You might be surprised by what is revealed to you. Also you will have earned the respect and trust of the other person. This is also something that many physicians could learn about dealing with their patients. Ask an open-ended question like “What brings you in here today?” and then just listen. Those Physicians who listen well, don’t jump to conclusions and don’t operate on assumptions will have a better relationship with their patients. How do I know that this is true? Oh, you know, just from a National Institute of Health study.
3. Don’t interrupt
Maybe this goes without saying, but then in my experience people interrupt each other all the time. In fact, most people think of listening as what we do while we are waiting our turn to talk. People are often so eager to speak that they jump into the middle of the conversation with a quick “yeah, but” and disregard what the other person was saying.
(And it turns out that this makes people crazy)
4. Reflect back what you heard
This is the craziest of jedi-mind tricks that you can do to tell someone that you are really listening to them. Instead of just agreeing with them (appeasing) or layering your story on top of theirs (the “yeah, I know, I do the same thing” type of response that refutes the initial offer) try just repeating back what they said to you.
Person A: Ug, I had the worst day today.
Person B: You had the worst day today. What happened?
Sound ridiculous? Try it. Don’t do it with every sentence, but when someone offers you something big about themselves or any kind of an offer that sounds fraught with complication, try just repeating the offer back to them and see what happens.
More often than not, they will be grateful. We rarely get our words or our experiences back to us. In truth, most of the time we have to fight with people to accept our reality.
Example of the fight:
Person A: “I am terrible at public speaking.”
Person B: “No you’re not. You’re awesome.”
While that may seem like encouragement, it is actually a negation of what Person A shared. It is like telling them that their experience is wrong. Another way to do this would be like this:
Person A: “I am terrible at public speaking.”
Person B: “You said that you’re terrible at public speaking. I don’t experience you that way. What’s up?”
The goal is to stay away from judging or evaluating the statement and instead just listen and engage. This can also be helpful during meetings when there is conflict:
Person A: “This is a stupid plan.”
Person B: “You don’t like this plan. What’s up?” (Notice that I didn’t take the bait on the word “stupid.” That’s for another topic.)
Disarm by repeating back what they said, engage by asking an open-ended question and keep your own needs clear of the conversation. The better you are at listening, the more people will perceive you as trustworthy, influential and persuasive.
After all, it is what the world wants more of and it will differentiate you from everyone else.