Let’s say a colleague or employee bends your ear about something that’s really bothering them. Which of the following responses sound like something you would say?
-Educating: “You know, this could end up being a very positive experience for you if you just …”
-Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
-Storytelling: “That reminds me of the time when…”
-Shutting down: “It is what it is,” or “Don’t feel so bad.”
-Sympathizing: “Oh that’s terrible…”
-Advising: “You should have …” or “How come you didn’t…?”
-Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
-Explaining: “You know, probably what actually happened was…”
-Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”
If you’re like most of us, you probably use any number of these or similar phrases when receiving information from others. And I’m guessing you do so to “fix” the situation, make the other person feel better, or maybe address your own discomfort. But the thing is, you might actually be making the other person feel worse.
Think about it. When you utter any of the phrases above, what are you doing? You’re cutting off the other person’s expression by reflexively going from zero to fix-it. The thing is, by moving to solution too quickly, you may not convey your genuine interest in the other person, and they may get the impression you’re in a hurry to move on. They’ll stop talking, and you’ll have heard only half of the story.
A lot of people managers are especially prone to cutting off the flow of information in this way. There’s a good reason for that: they’re paid to fix issues fast. While rapid problem-solving is a powerful skill, the strongest managers know when to turn it on and when to turn it off. Turn it off and you’ll be amazed at what you learn from your employees. From early warning about major problems to behaviors, issues, or processes standing in the way of your team’s productivity, your employees are a wealth of invaluable information. The same holds true for your colleagues.
It probably took some courage for the person sitting in front of you to open up and let you know what’s going on. What do you think they might need right now? Resist the urge to give advice, to explain your own thoughts, or to share your story. Instead, try to listen from a place of focusing on what the speaker needs, not on what you think; before responding, look for the speaker’s observations, feelings, needs and requests. When you can keep your attention on others, instead of on the response you are formulating, you offer them a chance to fully explore the topic at hand.
Try this: sit quietly and say nothing. Radical, I know. This is empathic listening.
If you are interested in learning more about clean communication, I recommend checking out Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003).