The fine art of listening

In the last two posts, I stated that most people haven’t learned the most basic rules of simply getting along. In every organization we’ve worked with, there have been unspoken and un-dealt with issues that rob people of their desire to work closely with their co-workers. For true teamwork to occur, people have to learn three fundamental rules of effective human interaction: you must keep your files empty; you must learn to communicate appropriately; and you must learn to make it safe for the people in your life to communicate to you. When files are empty, what’s present is openness, intimacy and trust, the hallmarks of nurturing relationships.

I have already discussed the first two rules. So let’s get to the third rule: making it safe for the people in your life to communicate to you.

For most people, this is the hardest of the three rules. The simple reason for this is that whether we realize this or not, and mostly we don’t, people go through life with their attention on themselves and they really are only interested in what concerns them. It’s actually a sad state of affairs that most people, again without consciously realizing this, care very little about how others are feeling or doing. They’re so focused on their own perceived challenges, issues and problems, they hardly spend a moment thinking about other people. And this is the one consistent quality everyone who has ever had a lousy boss knows to be true.

So when someone talks to this kind of person, they immediately feel the need to either defend themself or explain their behavior. This defensive reaction completely shuts down the speaker, preventing any possibility of a file emptying, and usually an argument or confrontation is the result. Not only do we do this with the people we work with, but we do this in our personal relationships and even with our children.

Is there a solution? You bet. If you want to make it safe for the people in your life to communicate to you, the way to do this is to get your attention off of yourself and put in on the one who is speaking to you. Get over in their world and do your very best to get how whatever they are speaking about is for them. Really try and climb into their reality. You might even learn something about yourself in their communication.

Under no circumstances are you to respond in any way to what they’re saying. No explanation of your behavior and no justifications. To the contrary, what you want to say, if anything, is “thank you for telling me that” or “I’m sorry” or both. You would say the later thing if indeed what they say makes you sad, which is what “I’m sorry” means.

You want to encourage the other person to completely empty their “files” so you might also say “what else?” All during the process, don’t respond, don’t react, and don’t take what they say personally, even though it likely is quite personal.

Now you might think this is a set-up for something painful. After all, you’re going to sit and listen while somebody says all kinds of things about and to you, and all you get to do is thank them, perhaps say you’re sorry, and encourage them to say more. Rest assured there’s a good reason for being willing listen in this way. First, people have the experience of being heard, which is enormously satisfying and fulfilling. Second, it allows the speaker to empty his file. What’s in it for you is the rehabilitation of the relationship, which is something both parties want.

There are a number of stories of how this works in personal relationships, with management and other teams, and between co-workers in Chapter 14 of Unshackled Leadership. If you still don’t have a copy, you can get yours today at