What does hearing look like?

January 2016

When I’m working with groups, I am always watching to see whether they are listening, and more importantly how they are listening to each other. Do they actually hear what each other has to say? After all, the whole point of a facilitated session is to ensure that people share, listen and learn from each other.

From a physical perspective, listening appears to happen when:

  • someone looks directly at the speaker
  • notes are being taken while someone is talking
  • body language is forward and attentive (e.g. leaning toward the speaker, head nodding)

Any school teacher or professional trainer will tell you that the physical signs of listening can be misleading. For example,

  • I am looking at the speaker, but thinking about about how tight my belt feel today
  • I am taking notes, but really I am preparing my grocery list
  • I am leaning forward and nodding my head, but I’m doing this to keep myself awake.

While I’m watching for the physical signs of listening, it is crucially more important to look for the evidence of listening, which is hearing.  We all know what it looks like when hearing doesn’t happen. Think back to a presentation you attended, your last project kick off meeting, or a vendor sales pitch! A failure to hear looks like:

  • ‘umm, can you repeat the question’
  • non-sequiturs: responses feel like they are disconnected from previous commentary
  • people speak in vague, unspecific terms
  • or worse… ‘deer in headlights’ … stunned silence

So – what then does good hearing look like? What is the evidence that hearing is taking place?

Hearing can be observed when:

  • clarifying questions are asked of a speaker
  • objections are raised to what was said and in context of how it was said
  • the speakers comments are restated or rephrased
  • a response was provided that was directly connected to what was said
  • additional insight was added to the previous level of insight

When I work with a group, the evidence that they have moved from a more passive (or physical) level of listening to an active level of hearing becomes obvious when they seek to clarify statements; when they identify underlying assumptions and when they challenge the assumptions of others. This can create conflict, but as long as the group continues to hear what each other says, they move beyond conflict towards resolution.

When groups start to build on each other’s ideas, hearing is actively at play. It sounds like:

“I liked what you said when… and if we did also did this then…. we’d accomplish what … said”. 

I work with a small management team that doesn’t always agree with each other. What I really appreciate about this team is that they actively hear each other. They demonstrate their hearing when they genuinely seek clarification from each other; they openly disagree with each other and more importantly state why they disagree with each other. Once the source of disagreement is understood, then they start building resolution by referencing statements that they have said earlier and begin to stitch together a go forward approach. This management team has well developed conflict resolution skills and their number one asset is their capacity for hearing each other.

When I am working with a group – large or small and I see these moments of hearing, I feel that anything is possible. These are the little moments that feel like big wins in a facilitated discussion.

When was the last time you observed it in action?

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