Even when we think we’re listening we’re probably not, explains Louise Rodgers, Building Design’s professional coach

Louise Rodgers crop 2

We have all experienced being “in tune with” or “on the same wavelength” as someone else. But did you know that when you listen and really “get” what another person is saying, your brain waves literally sync with theirs?

I’m a little bit obsessed with neuroscience, so to learn that there is a visible coupling of neural pathways between the brains of someone who is listening to the thoughts, feelings and memories of someone else, and those of the speaker was a little mind-blowing. And yet, perhaps not.

It’s easy to see how learning to listen better in the workplace can unlock thoughts and ideas that might otherwise be stifled long before they have even really got going, let alone found expression. Architects would find out more about their clients’ vision; senior architects working with younger colleagues would find that fresh ideas have room to emerge; and teams would be more collaborative.

One of the exercises I often do with small groups and teams is to ask one person to think of something like a role model, or an achievement they are proud of, and then talk about it with a partner for 3-5 minutes. Their partner is not allowed to interrupt, ask questions or respond in any way at all. They just have to listen.

It’s surprising how hard this is to do, for both the speaker and the listener. But when it really works the speaker finds out how liberating it is just to be able to talk without fear or expectation of being interrupted. And the listener learns that if they just relax into listening – instead of trying to mentally compose a clever question or thinking of something in their own experience which will reinforce or contradict what they are hearing – they may really learn something.

Without uttering a word, we are allowing our own mental chatter to dominate the conversation

Learning to listen properly can transform workplace cultures and benefit all our relationships, not just in the office but also at home. How many parents have experienced their teenager’s frustrated cry of: “You’re just not listening to me!”? Chances are that you weren’t. You were thinking of the next technique you could use to get them to do their homework. You might have been hearing their words but you weren’t tuning in to what they were thinking or allowing those thoughts the space to emerge.

What so often happens is that when we forget to focus on listening, we never really hear. We may be giving the impression of listening – using active listening techniques such as physically leaning in to the conversation, maintaining eye contact and nodding appreciatively – but if in our own minds we are thinking, “What clever question can I ask to demonstrate that I have been listening?”, or “How can I solve this problem?” we are just not doing it. Without uttering a word, we are allowing our own mental chatter to dominate the conversation.

When we learn how to relax into listening without urgency, and the person speaking feels they can do so without being interrupted, magic can happen. Non-verbal clues can be picked up and our own thoughts and feelings become less important than those of the person we are listening to. How does a client’s tone lift when he or she is talking about their vision for the project you are working on? How fearful does someone in a public consultation seem about a new development happening in their area, and why might this be?

Real listening is not a passive activity. It involves using our mind, imagination and empathy. It can be so useful to be listened to by an interested listener that caring, attentive listening is enough to release intelligent thinking and more creative solutions.