Transforming Talk at Work | March 2015


Dear reader,

After a workshop I recently led, a participant approached me with a concerned expression on her face. She was looking for my advice regarding a colleague who was particularly difficult to communicate with: “She seems incapable of listening to me and always gets stuck on her own viewpoint – it’s extremely frustrating. Even when I try to redirect her back to what I’m actually talking about, nothing ever changes. And, in the end, I just give up.”

This situation is quite common and, although it can be hard to admit, we all do it. Instead of thoughtfully responding, we’ll jump in with our reply before the other person has even finished speaking. We want to be helpful, but we get distracted by our own point of view. We think we’re tracking, but we have missed cues telling us that we are off course. Our conversation partner leaves feeling alienated, and we may not even know it. We have forgotten the skill of listener adaptation.

Listener adaptation is a shorthand term for the degree to which the person speaking adapts their message to the goals, values and beliefs of the person they are speaking to (a.k.a. the listener). Think of it as a scale that needs balancing. One side of the scale carries the agenda of the speaker: sharing professional expertise, wanting to be heard, etc. On the other side of the scale is the other person’s needs. Balance only comes when the speaker holds the needs and objectives of the listener along with their own.

Fortunately, listener adaptation is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon. It starts with four simple steps: stop, be present, listen, and integrate. These steps must be repeated over and over within a single conversation to be truly successful. But, trust me, once you are skilled at listener adaptation, you’ll be amazed by where the conversation can take you.

The next time you are part of a human interaction – probably as soon as you are done reading this email – use the following steps to practice the art of listener adaptation.


Reverse Engineer: Listener Adaptation

1. Stop: When someone wants to speak with you, ask yourself if you have the time and energy to listen. Are you under a tight deadline, exhausted at the end of your day, or focused on something else? If so, respectfully ask to reconvene at a time when you can provide your undivided attention.
2. Be present: Put everything else down and arrive in the present moment. Set aside technology and release the thoughts running through your mind (whether they have to do with the person you are speaking with or not). Let go of attitudes about past conversations. Enter the interaction with a blank slate.
3. Listen with attention: Make eye contact and maintain attentive body language. Ask reflective questions that are unbiased and genuine. As always, stay curious. This month’s “Digest This” section is packed with tips and techniques related to attentive listening. Have a look at the articles below.
4. Integrate: Each time it is your turn to speak, take a moment to synthesize and absorb what your conversation partner has shared before you respond. It’s perfectly acceptable (and often desirable) to pause before you reply.


Digest This: Better Listening

How to Really Listen to Your Employees (Harvard Business Review)
Make listening a high priority – it’s a choice you have to make. Know what’s holding you back. Watch for non-verbal cues on both sides of the conversation. Start practicing these key strategies now, and read on for more insight and examples of really engaged listening.

Communication Lessons from a Sales Trainer: Stop Talking and Start Listening (Forbes)
This article breaks down listening techniques into percentages, equations and plenty of plain common sense. Step one to better communication: stop trying to make others understand you, and start trying to understand them – what an idea!

5 Ridiculously Easy Listening Techniques That Actually Work (Inc.)
The better listening habits you display, the more others will return the favor. Try this one: tip your head slightly so one ear is turned toward the speaker. Sounds waves will enter your ear more directly so you can literally hear more of what’s being said. Presto – you’re a better listener already!


My Treat: Entertaining Practice

I like to think of listener adaptation as following an ever-evolving mystery: gather clues, isolate relevant details and stay on the trail. Want a little practice in the form of solid entertainment? Check out this podcast series I’ve been hooked on: Serial.

Start with episode one, and follow the narrator as she wades judiciously through the ins and outs of solving a real murder case. Change your mind and change it back again.

Enjoy the ride!


March is International Listening Awareness month. Practice all month long.

Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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