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The art of listening, encouraging the discipline with Mr Potato Head

Almost every day in my coaching practice someone shares a story with me of how somebody at work is driving them up the wall. Some very talented people have had it with the difficult individual and contemplating (or decided) to quit their jobs.

Developing good listening skills is an art form that seems to be less of a natural skill than it was at an earlier time when distractions were not common place. The concept of “active listening” has become cliché-ish and may not hold as much water with some people, or maybe it’s just the people who are not comfortable using it. Unless there’s something great to replace active listening, I’m still globbing onto it. The fact is, passive attention doesn’t work. After all, we know that demonstrating you’re not listening instigates a chain of consequences:

o People are hurt by the realization
o They harbor ill feelings towards you
o They’re likely to not listen to you either

What’s so hard about being active in listening is that it often takes a deliberate effort to suspend our own needs and reactions. To listen well you must hold back what you have to say and control the urge to interrupt or argue. The art of listening requires a shift of focus from self to others. This is not always easy, especially when there’s a compulsion to demonstrate that we happen to be right in our point of view. But in so doing, we’re not truly open to the other person’s point of view.

As hard as it is, the pay off to listening is great. Anytime you demonstrate a willingness to listen with a minimum of defensiveness, criticism, or impatience, you are giving the other person a benefit of understanding. It’s a concerted effort towards generating mutual understanding. Once more, you then earn the right to have it reciprocated. At this point, speaking now establishes how we are perceived as a listener.

So how do we keep the discipline of really tuning in when someone is speaking? I’ve found that symbols serve as great reminders. My clients have suggested those colored rubber bracelets with the word “listen” on it so they can snap themselves on the wrist if they don’t do it well. As a contrast to the self flagellation technique, I’d offer up a positive reinforcement, ergo Mr. Potato-Head. Surely we remember the cute ‘70s toy icon with the removable facial and body parts. Think of Mr. Potato with only eyes and ears (no mouth). Prominently displayed on your desk, on your screen saver could do wonders to ensure you stay in action mode towards really paying attention to what others’ are saying, not only their words, but their meaning.

So if you asked yourself “Am I a good listener?” What would you offer as evidence that it’s true?

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