There’s a difference between listening and hearing, do you know what it is?
“Listening isn’t shutting up. Listening is having nothing to say.”Robin Dreeke
Just before making the transition to full-time freelance writing, I was a wellness coach. Got myself a Graduate Certificate and everything. While I love everything about the coach-client relationship and truly feel it’s an area I can make a difference in, the market just isn’t there yet. For all my good intentions, rent’s gotta get paid. Of all the things I learned in grad school, and during coaching sessions, one thing has stuck with me through my current client relationships—the power of being heard.
During sessions, it used to amaze me how much progress could be made after one particular switch would flip. That switch is when the client realizes that not only was I listening to them, I was also truly hearing them. This is a difficult distinction to explain, and it can be even harder to explain the impact it has on the relationship. None of that’s going to stop me from trying, so here we go.
In the course of a marketing push for my coaching practice, I read a book by Simon Sinek called Start With Why. Yes, it’s a marketing book, but I’ve found Sinek’s ideas widely applicable. His premise is that customers don’t buy what you do, or even how you do it. They buy WHY you do it.
So I started thinking about my WHY.
The thing that kept coming out at the top of all the lists I made (one day I might post some pictures of the notebooks I carry around. Gives people a much clearer idea of what it looks like inside my head) was the power of listening. There is something empowering about knowing someone has truly heard and internalized what you said. I know that power works for myself, the few times in my life when I felt the person I was talking to truly heard me were life-altering. And those people are among my few good friends to this day.
Today, when I meet with a new client, I find the single thing I can do to have the greatest impact on how the meeting goes is to remind myself going in that I’m there to listen first, elicit insight second, and talk third. Taking some mindful breaths on my way in doesn’t hurt. The most useful things a client ever said to me happened during a pause when I DIDN’T respond immediately to their last comment. They went, “Oh, almost forgot…” and laid out exactly what I needed to know to get their project kicked off.
Listening vs. Hearing: The Difference
This brings us to the quote I opened with from Robin Dreeke. It highlights what I believe the difference between listening and hearing is. To truly hear to someone, you can’t be formulating your response while they’re still talking. If you do, you’re not hearing them. Your attention has moved on to how you’re going to connect yourself to whatever they just said. It’s an ego thing, usually unconscious, but an ego thing nonetheless. Whatever you can do remind yourself that it’s not about you, do it. Then go back to just listening.
A quick side note: Yes, this can be done over Skype, Zoom, or another video conferencing tool as we’re being forced to use in these strange and unsettling times amid the Coronavirus pandemic. It takes more work on your part as the listener. It takes knowing how to use these tools to the greatest impact, making eye contact via laptops and tablets is…complicated. But it can be done (I’m considering a how-to primer on this in the coming weeks, thoughts?). Or you can store this away for the inevitable day we return to “the new normal” and you can once again sit down across from your friend/client (albeit it possibly 6 feet away…).
Know How To Manage Your Attention
Humans have limited attention. We can either listen to the constant background chatter we’re surrounded by every day, or we can focus in on hearing the pain/joy/emotion in the voice of the person we’re actually interacting with. The latter means employing a level of empathy you may not be familiar with. But with practice you’ll get there. We can all afford to give those we care about, whether family, friends, or clients the attention and empathy they deserve. They’ll be able to sense the care we’re giving the conversation, and that leads to more opening up and more progress almost instantly. They’re /feeling/ heard.
Along with empathy, humans also come equipped with a well-defined sense of self-preservation. This is what leads us to try to connect every conversation or story we hear back to us. Back in our savanna days, this instinct was about survival. If we were directly involved in the story about the last hunt, that means we got a share of the spoils and were able to feed our family. If not, well the name of the game was passing on our genes, so if not we lose.
“Pick Me! Pick Me!”
I’ve heard the modern version of this instinct to have an answer to everything called the “Oh, oh, pick me!” response. It’s the sense that you have a similar story, but yours is even better than theirs, so you must share it. And we all love telling stories, don’t we? While this instinct may have served us well thousands of years ago, in today’s world it just makes us look narcissistic and self-centered. And when your goal is to help your friend get over their break-up (for example) that’s the last thing you want to come off as.
The key to truly listening to someone is to turn this response off. Not just tone it down, turn it all the way off. If you feel yourself wanting to tell your version of the story, your conversation partner will be able to feel it too. They may not have the words for what they’re feeling, yet they’ll know they don’t have your full attention.
Try this the next time you sit down with a close friend for coffee (post-Coronavirus, of course):
- Take 5 deep, mindful breaths: inhale for a count of 4, hold it for 4, exhale for a count of 6
- Give your conversation partner your full, complete, and undivided attention
- When you feel the urge to formulate a response, pause for a 5 count
- See what amazing insight they offer up in that time
I can’t guarantee you’ll have the kind of results I did with clients. What I can guarantee is that your friend will get more out of this conversation than they ever imagined. And so will you.