Monday, 30 July 2012

The Opposite of Speaking

Like most parents of young teenage kids, I work for money during the week and I am an unpaid taxi driver at the weekend.  I’m getting really good at listening to obscure radio stations while doing the midnight pick up.  Last weekend, tiring of listening to the news in Danish on Long Wave (try it – a non Danish speaker can get about 25%), I tuned into some very smart people discussing the latest play in London’s West End.  They were praising a play because the actors appeared to be listening to each other – not just waiting for their turn to speak.  Honestly, I didn’t know that you could act ‘listening’ but it’s an intriguing concept and it got me thinking about how so much innovation in large companies gets snuffed out. 

Most ideas are born ugly – a half-bred, half-cooked idea leaves your lips but dammit, you curse your inability to speak the idea in a clear thought through way.  Those around you break for a moment to listen but get back on their conversational strand as you trail off.  Yes, that was a daft thing to say, I won’t do that again.  Rewind and play it another way: those around you break for a moment and give you the slightest encouragement to say more – what’s behind that idea, mmmm – there’s something in it – let’s explore it a bit more…Now that wasn't such a daft thing to say after all.

Speaking is an art, transmitting is an art – our words, tone, gesticulations, even our clothes – they are all transmitting something we want to say, and we put a lot of effort into it.  But the opposite of speaking isn’t waiting to speak some more, it’s listening and it’s an art that most of us pay a lot less attention to.  Which is odd – our brains can process concepts 5 times faster than we can speak them. There’s a lot that can go right and wrong with listening. 

I don't think the rules of listening are complex:

1.   If you’re not in the mood then say so, fix a time to ‘listen’ to someone when you are.

2.   Resist the temptation to problem-solve or dive in and ‘save’ someone.  Listening is very hard for energetic well-meaning problem solvers. 

3.   Beware over-use of ‘reflective listening’ – parroting the last thing the speaker said isn’t helpful.

4.   ‘Why?’ is the listener’s best tool.  ‘Why’ is this person feeling this?  Treat it as a challenge – get to the bottom of it.  Thinking or asking ‘why’ automatically displaces the confirmation bias most of us have – the need to hear in others what we want to be true.

5.   ‘Why?’ is also a subtle tool and dangerous if mishandled.  ‘Why?’ should be an encouragement to share more, to dig deeper beneath the surface, to ‘cook’ the idea more.  ‘Why?’ shouldn’t be a demand for justification; ‘ok, so why is that such a great idea?’  Nothing kills innovation faster than this.

The opposite of speaking is listening, really listening, not waiting to speak.  Who cares if you ‘act it’ to begin with, maybe with practice listening will become as authentic and valued as speaking.