Why Smart People Can Have a Hard Time Listening
Listening well might not be as easy you think.
Being intelligent has a lot of perks, but there are a few instances in which a high intellect can impact your ability to thrive. How? Consider listening.
Listening, as it turns out, is a critical skill set that few have mastered and is foundational in being an effective leader. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about simply hearing. That’s something else. Listening, when done well, has people feeling understood, heard and seen.
But here’s the catch: while seemingly simple, it’s not easy to do. In fact, most of us don’t do it well at all, and the worst part is we think we do.
It turns out that on average, people speak at around 125 words per minute, but we have the capability to comprehend up to 400 words per minute and the smarter you are, the faster your brain thinks, according to research findings.
According to HBR, the issue lies in the spread: the speed at which your brain can think versus the speed at which the words are spoken. This gap creates an opening for the brain to wander if you don’t disrupt this pattern, which majorly gets in the way of our ability to really listen.
But don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s something I work on a lot with our consulting clients. If you would like to improve your effectiveness with people, start with practicing what my colleagues and I call a special kind of listening. Here’s the basic 3-step framework we use with our clients to enable them to develop their listening muscle. And when practiced, people leave feeling empowered and energized after their interaction with you.
The content: what are they actually saying?
The most basic level of listening is being able to capture what someone says, exactly how they said it. As the French author François Garagnon said, “Between what you hear, what you believe you understand, what you want to understand and what you understood…” there are many possibilities for misunderstanding.
So, what can you do to nail the first step in listening effectively?
The most productive way to test whether you grasped what someone is saying, exactly the way they said it, is to replay what was said. You might say, “I just want to make sure I got everything you said, which is…” then replay what they said, using that person’s words as much as possible. Be sure to get confirmation that you did get it, and if anything was missed, start the exercise over again until your colleague says, “Yes, you got it exactly right. That’s what I said.”
The background: what emotions and attitudes do they have?
Next, you want to get a read on the mindset and emotions of someone as they are talking. Are they excited, confident, frustrated, or perhaps disconnected? What is their body language saying? Sometimes, our way of being says more than our words. Tuning into that will tell you a whole lot about what’s going on.
The desire: what’s the underlying desire they are speaking from?
Finally, listen for their underlying desire. There is often a concern behind the things we say. For instance, if a colleague comes and complains about being overwhelmed at work, perhaps the underlying desire they are speaking on behalf of could be an aspiration to do their job well.
And that’s something you can validate, too, to make sure you’re not making stuff up. Once you confirm that this is truly what your colleague is trying to get across, you now have access to supporting that person to do a good job by maybe helping them prioritize.
If you don’t actively seek out their underlying desire in the background, you get stuck with the complaint, which doesn’t give you an access point to support your teammate.
When you listen for these three things, you will elevate the people around you. As a business owner or leader, it is your job to empower your colleagues to perform at their absolute best. By honing in on your listening, you will get access to catalyzing their growth in ways that feel natural and in partnership with them.