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Mindful Comm: Effective Listening & Speaking (2/4: 1st Principle)

Laura Thompson, EMP, INSEAD; Founding CEO, Laura Thompson Coaching & Consulting Services

      The first principle of becoming a mindful communicator is listening and speaking effectively in conversations, a learning process that entails moving from a subjective method of interacting with others to an objective and intuitive method. In the sections below I offer examples based on my own experiences.

      The first principle of becoming a mindful communicator is listening and speaking effectively in conversations, a learning process that entails moving from a subjective method of interacting with others to an objective and intuitive method. In the sections below I offer examples based on my own experiences.

      Subjective Listening and Speaking

      Subjective listening and speaking are how most people conduct conversations. It involves focusing on your own agenda and how your experiences relate back to what the other person is saying. Becoming aware of our own subjective listening and speaking habits can uncover unconscious biases, stemming from how we have been brought up and educated. These biases are linked to our cultural, personal, and professional values, and an awareness of them is crucial in improving how we work with others, both in person and remotely.

      Consider three young men who are computer engineers, working in product development for a healthcare AI tech company. Their job is to integrate AI software into stethoscopes in order to gain more insight into cardiovascular disease—in essence, they are working on AI for the heart. The three men consist of a newly promoted manager, San, who has had to learn soft skills to become an effective team leader (a challenging task for him, as he was an introvert); the first member of his team, Marc, who is working on-site and sits next to him; and the second member of his team, Paulo, who works remotely from Brazil. Paolo moved to Brazil because his wife landed a great job there, and San worries that Paolo may resign after a few months. At the office one day, San looks over at Marc’s computer screen, rolls his eyes, picks up his cellphone, and texts Marc: “Hey, last week I asked you to organize your screen.”

      Marc picks up his cell phone and texts back, “I did.”
      San texts, “Let’s figure out best way to organize your screen after lunch.”
      Marc texts, “Ok.”
      San texts, “How did your convo go with Paolo?”
      Marc texts, “No show again.”
      San texts, “I like maps. I’ll send him a Time Zone Map.”
      Marc texts, “Seriously, dude?”
      San texts, “Try Slack next time.”

      After furiously texting for several minutes with their nimble thumbs, both San and Marc put down their phones and resumed working, without ever addressing each other in speech. They have not even thought about conducting their conversation verbally, despite sitting right next to each other in an open-plan office layout.

      As the team’s external coach, I worked with them to develop better communication skills, enabling them to forge a new relationship based on trust, engagement, motivation, and productivity, both on-site and virtually. During this process both San and Marc realized that they were using an unproductive communication method because of their own past experiences and preferences.

      In San’s case, his unconscious bias was that he assumed his way of organization was better than Marc’s; he did not take into consideration the possibility that Marc’s working style might work best for Marc, based on the way he processes information. Moreover, San assumed that Paolo had missed the call by mixing up the time zones, even though Paolo’s mistake might have arisen from some other cause, or as a result of his own preferences. For all of us, it is important to strive for awareness of our biases and false assumptions, even in the most basic conversations. As a result of the coaching process, San, as the Manager and Team Leader, learned to be cognizant of diverse communication and working styles and agreed to work with Marc and Paolo on improving their communication skills to effectively work together going forward. In conversation, there is a frequent difference between men and women: men often listen with the intent of coming up with solutions, whereas women often support their interlocutors without advice and will relate their own similar experiences as a means of sympathizing. The best method for effectively listening, however, for both men and women, is to focus on the needs of the person you are listening to, rather than on your own preferences.

      Objective Listening and Speaking

      Objective listening and speaking involves focusing on what the speaker is saying without adding your own agenda. It is effective because by practicing it you let the speaker know that you have absorbed what he or she has said, acknowledging both the statement and the feelings behind it. Practicing objective listening will increase your skill in communicating at a deeper, more meaningful level.

      Let us take two men working for an international company based in Bamako, Mali.4 Derek complains to his boss’s boss, Youssef, “Why did they hire that woman from France who’s so much younger than me? She is the world’s worst boss. All she does is micromanage me.”

      Youssef replies, “It’s normal to be upset. You feel that you should have been the one promoted, rather than having me bring in someone from the outside to be your supervisor. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll have a chat with your boss regarding her management style and how it can be positively changed so you both benefit.”

      In this case, Youssef demonstrated that he has listened to and understood Derek’s complaint, acknowledging Derek’s hurt feelings and desire to be promoted rather than focusing immediately on his own reasons for making the hire.

      Developing the skill of comprehending differing viewpoints will enhance your communication with people in all areas of your life, and this effective communication will in turn improve your relationships, helping them to become stronger and more positive based on underlying trust.

      Intuitive Listening and Speaking

      An intuitive listener pays attention not only to the speaker’s words but also to his or her tone, manner, body language, and implicit feelings. An intuitive listener can connect what the speaker is saying to the underlying motivation for the speaker’s remarks.

      Sometimes the speaker will not tell the listener exactly what he or she means, and the listener must act like a detective and uncover the real message. Doing so in your professional conversations will help you discover what is really important for your interlocutors and to differentiate between their true feelings and the professional façades that they may be presenting to their colleagues.

      Let us look at a conversation I had as a mentor for the Founder and Chairman of the Board of a large company. The Chairman was confiding his worries about the CEO of his company: “At the Board meeting, he pounded his fist on the table and declared that he wanted to crush the competition in whatever way possible.”

      As his mentor, I first acknowledged the emotion behind his words, replying, “It’s understandable that this bothered you.” Then, analyzing the situation, I said, “It’s a clash of values. You have run all of your companies competitively but with integrity. ‘Crushing the competition in whatever way possible’ appears to imply that corruption might be involved, and that is not a method based on integrity. I suggest that you talk with him, though it could be a difficult conversation.”

      In this scenario, I knew the Chairman’s character because of our previous consulting relationship, but you do not need to know a person well to use intuitive listening skills. You must simply strive to remain mindfully present with the speaker and to understand and absorb his or her emotions. Imagine that the speaker is the only person who matters to you, empathize with his or her emotions, and resist the urge to create interruptions by looking at your phone or taking incoming calls.

      In this type of exchange, the speaker must have the listener’s undivided attention, for however long it takes to convey the full meaning of the intended message. Practice intuitive listening and speaking with your family, with your colleagues and clients, and while socializing with your friends. Over time, you will notice that your relationships in all of these areas become more caring, productive, and meaningful.

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