PM Articles > Geof Lory > Practice Compassionate Listening

Practice Compassionate Listening

by Geof Lory

For as long as I can remember, I have had a home office with a computer, a separate phone line, and a closable door. These communication devices, along with a quiet place to use them, are essential tools of my trade. I spend a fair amount of my time in my office on the phone or working on my computer. However, as a father to two daughters, it was not always a quiet place to do work. Doors can be knocked on or opened, even by little hands.

So, when the girls were younger, our Team Operating Agreement included a brief statement intended to set some rules around interrupting Dad while he was in the office. Basically it stated that someone better be bleeding if you came knocking on Dad's office, especially if he was on the phone. For the most part, they were pretty good about this and emergencies and interruptions were few and far between.

The Distractive Whirlwind

When that rule was established email was in its infancy, cell phones were not totally ubiquitous nor were they smart yet, and social media was hardly a household term. The girls had no means to email, text, or call if they needed me, so they did it the old-fashioned way; they interrupted me with a direct one-on-one face-to-face conversation. (For those of you unfamiliar with that method, it is kind of like a small meeting without a WebEx.)

As time and technology have changed, the methods and means of interrupting have increased. Now it feels more like regular work is an intrusion to a steady stream of managed interruptions. We live by our email, texts, tweets, check-ins, likes -- a constant assault on our stream of consciousness. Work ends up being less a steadily flowing ribbon of water and more like a series of turbulent pools and waterfalls. Perhaps a pretty mental metaphor, but try floating a canoe down that stream. You have to make a lot of portages, loading the gear in and out of the canoe with every flow interruption. Not productive at all.

Much has been written about the fallacy of multitasking, though I admit to personally thinking I am capable of doing it. My ego won't allow me to think otherwise. But I do know that if I am not fully focused on the task at hand, I am sacrificing something, both to the task I'm working on and the interruption. Neither gets my full attention, so neither gets my best effort. Now, admittedly, I have been in meetings where this may have been a successful survival technique (which maybe suggests I wasn't needed in the meeting to begin with), but that is hopefully the exception not the rule.

When It Matters, Start with Effective Listening

High performing teams are created by and rely on effective communication.

High performing teams are created by and rely on effective communication. The development of effective communication patterns and enabling of smooth flow of information are essential to great teamwork. This is particularly true on Agile teams, where so much of the process and so many of the information hand-offs are replaced with dialogue: individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Effective communication starts with effective listening. When it comes to communication that really matters, particularly fostering the relationships that lubricate good communications, distracted listening comes with a high price tag.

When was the last time you were truly focused on listening? By truly focused, I don't mean just blocking out external interruptions by turning off your email or setting aside your smart phone, I also mean suspending your own internal interruptions. I mean just listening, nothing else. Listening -- effective listening -- is not easy. When the stakes are very high, to be more successful, we need to create an environment that encourages effective listening.

Presence -- the Environmental Prerequisite

Can you think of a time when you've been in conversation with someone and before you finish your sentence they are already sharing their version of a similar story? Before you've had time to complete your thought, they are beginning their response. You can feel it. They aren't listening, they are waiting for you to stop so they can talk. How did that make you feel? Did you feel heard? Valued?

I know I need to work on my effective listening skills, a lot! My monkey mind and sense of urgency are demons I fight with in every conversation. So I practice effective listening by setting the environment, being present. It is my secret weapon. My goal is to set a stage that says, "Whoever or whatever else it is, it can wait. You and this conversation are the most important things to me at this moment." If anyone has ever listened to you that way, you know how powerful that is.

Practices for Compassionate Listening

Compassionate listening tells the person you're with, "You matter."

The intention of this blog is not to talk about techniques for effective listening; there are many good books and seminars on how to develop good listening skills. I even wrote an article on this subject several years ago, Where Do You Listen From? I want to focus on the simple though difficult act of being present when listening. All the best techniques will be negated if they are just techniques. You can accelerate effective listening to compassionate listening by adding presence. Compassionate listening tells the person you're with, "You matter."

Compassionate listening is not easy to do because it requires you to be fully present. So here are some suggested practices for creating an environment that lets you be totally present, so you can turn your effective listening into compassionate listening.

Turn away from the external distractions. Until recent years we survived fine without our smartphones alerting us of incoming mail, tweets, and texts. We need to learn to make choices around our distractions that keep us in control of our own life.

    Practice: Put the phone down and step away from the email. They will all be there in a few minutes when you get back to them. Besides, you are probably more important to the person you are conversing with than the one pinging you on some electronic device. People know when you're listening or only half-listening.

Turn off the internal distractions. Suspend your judgment and just listen. If you can't suspend judgment, assume positive intent. Relax your mind and be open to the possibilities.

    Practice: Try listening with the intent to agree or at least suppress your internal "yah-but." This mental re-positioning will leave room for the possibilities and tells the person speaking that their thoughts and idea have value.

Be sensitive to what is being said. Sometimes those you're with don't need you to say a word. They just want to be heard.

    Practice: Just listen without any desire to comment or respond. Give them the time and space to spill their guts. Your only response might be to shake your head in empathy. Nothing builds trust like listening with compassion.

Pay attention to what is NOT being said. We all give off nonverbal cues when we communicate. It's not only what we say but how we say it. This is why email is such a poor communication tool.

    Practice: Watch the other person intently, then validate anything you are sensing before making assumptions or responding. People don't only want to be heard, they want to be understood.

Suspend the desire to speak. This is by far the hardest one. I find it annoying when someone interrupts me before I finish a sentence or finishes my sentences for me. I know I am guilty of this, especially with my wife. She has told me, many times.

    Practice: Wait 3-5 seconds after the other person is done speaking before speaking yourself. You may find the silence uncomfortable at first, but if you truly care about what others have to say, you will give them enough time to say it. The result will be worth the wait.

Compassionate listening is a powerful skill for high performing teams. It makes significant demands on us as listeners. It takes time and it takes practice. As much as I hated being interrupted in my office by my daughters, each interruption was an opportunity for me to practice compassionate listening.

So, on those occasions when the girls did come knocking on my office door with no visible blood as an excuse, I would turn to them and say, "I want to give you my undivided attention. I am right in the middle of something. If you let me finish this, I'm all yours." I would quickly wrap up what I was doing and then turn my back to the computer and phone and compassionately listen for as long as it took. If the phone rang or my email beeped, I tried not to even flinch. It was the best way I knew how to tell them how much they matter, because they do.

Isn't that the message we want to send to our team members too?

Thanks for listening.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thanks Geof... nice reminder that I as a listener have responsibilities as well

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