Breathe, Listen, Don’t Try to Solve

Over the past few months, I have been trying to get better at listening. My mentor in this journey has been Oscar Trimboli, an expert in this field who has an excellent podcast called Deep Listening and a couple of wonderful books on this subject (which I haven’t read yet, but I am confident they are wonderful).

I wrote to Oscar with a question about listening as a leader in the workplace, and not only did he answer my question, he made a full podcast episode to answer my question! Talk about going above and beyond!

Oscar has identified four “Listening Villains“: the dramatic, interrupting, lost, and shrewd listeners. These describe tendencies that we all have that impede our ability to be good listeners. My primary listening villain is “The Interrupting Listener”. Or at least, that was my primary listening villain until a few months ago when I recognized what I was doing and actively tried to stop doing it. I think I have gotten better at not interrupting, but I still have work to do in this domain.

The reason that I interrupt is that I want people to talk faster to keep up with the speed that my brain is processing what they are saying. We all can listen faster than anyone can talk, and I didn’t realize that this gap between the speed of speaking and the speed of listening was creating a level of frustration in my brain that came out as me wanting the conversation to move more quickly. I have now recognized that I do this, and I am trying to get myself to be more patient and to ACTUALLY LISTEN rather than trying to guess what the person is going to say next and (not very helpfully) giving them their next words if they pause for even a fraction of a second.

I am also a persistent problem solver, and not in a good way. As soon as anyone starts talking, I parse their words into a problem (as identified by me) and immediately (and again, not very helpfully) start to try to solve it for them.

And finally, my own inner dialogue also impedes my ability to listen properly to what people are saying. While I am ostensibly listening to what people are saying to me, I am also processing my to do list, thinking about what I am going to eat for supper, and pondering the state of the universe, amongst other more or less trivial things.

What Oscar taught me is: BREATH, LISTEN, and DON’T TRY TO SOLVE. Oh, it’s hard for me to even remember to breathe! Focusing on my breathing involves SLOWING DOWN, and that is not something that I have historically been good at. But I am trying hard to do that now. Before I have a conversation, before I eat, before I do anything, I am trying to remember to breathe. I am terrible at it, but I am optimistic that I can learn!

If I can remember to breathe, then I can remember to get myself into a state where I can listen to what people are saying to me. And I mean actually listen, and not just trying to anticipate what they are going to say, or thinking about what I am going to say back.

And in that moment of breathing, I can also remind myself not to try to solve any problems unless I am specifically asked to do so, and probably not even then. Even if someone asks me directly for advice, I need to remember that I probably do not have a full understanding of the context that the person is operating in and need to remain curious a bit longer before deciding whether or not to give any advice. People don’t like to be given useless advice, after all.

I can’t tell you how hard this is for me. I have spent fifty years “listening” and I thought I knew what I was doing, but I now realize that I need to go right back to first principles and re-think how to do this very basic, human function.

I am only just a beginner at this new craft of listening, but I have already noticed an improvement in the relationships I have with the people around me. People notice — both consciously and sub-consciously — whether or not they are really being listened to. There is a palpable difference in the interaction when deep listening is happening. And if I can just remember to breathe — which doesn’t sound that hard, does it? — I can experience these noticeable improvements in my friendships and relationships.

Did you miss me?

I was posting every day during the winter break, and I was hoping to be able to keep it up once I got back to work, but that seems to be unrealistic. So, I will try to keep up my posting on the weekends instead, and if I happen to have the bandwidth for one post during the week, then I may post then too, but I won’t hold myself to it. In the past, I would have pushed myself to keep posting every day, and just stayed up as late as necessary to make that happen — until that become unsustainable and I just gave up entirely out of unsustainability and exhaustion. Shaney 2.0 doesn’t do that to herself anymore.

Keeping things right-sized is a probably good topic for a future post.