Why Active Listening Stinks

Why Active Listening Stinks

“What I hear you saying is … stop parroting what I’m saying!”

Anyone motivated to read this article already knows active listening skills through exposure to it in training and books. Yet, if you’re like most people, you find it strangely distasteful to be either the giver or receiver of active listening technique. Nine out of 12 times it registers as insincere, patronizing or like the person using it is an insufferable undergraduate at Active Listening University.

What’s worse is the preceding clumsiness only emerges if you can remember your lessons from Active Listening 101. When the conversation becomes fiery, your brain tends to bypasses the synapses capable of constructing flawless “I statements” and arrives instead at an ancient, reptilian place where self-preservation and blamelessness reign. No wonder active listening smells funny.

So, what’s a well-meaning communicator like you supposed to do when you find yourself in tense situations? As a facilitator who’s witnessed thousands of tense, face-to-face conflict conversations, my advice revolves around one insight: Just be curious. At some point in the conversation—preferably earlier than later—ask yourself why the other person sees the situation as she does. What does this look like from her foothold in the universe? To clarify, I’m not talking about the “Why the heck does she think that?!” brand of curiosity, but the “Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know why she sees it so differently?” type. Happily, this mindset is both plausible and actionable because you actually already are curious; you’re just clever at masking it.

Once you tap into curiosity, step two is to demonstrate and quench your curiosity any way you choose. Technique is subordinate to authentic interest. If you’re inspired to summarize, clarify and validate emotions, then those formerly stilted techniques are transformed into meaningful queries and genuine dialogue. My clients who find it in themselves to ask real questions and strive to ensure they actually understand the other always have an easier time navigating toward positive working relationships. In the end, it’s not active listening that stinks but our collective failure when things get hot to infuse it with true wonder.


About the author

Chris Sheesley, MA, puts derailed workplace relationships back on track. Senior leaders and HR professionals rely on his 25 years of full time experience to transform seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and productivity. His track record of over 1,750 cases, places him among the most seasoned conflict management professionals on the West Coast. Contact: (503) 723-9982 or www.inaccordnw.com

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