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.