I learned the art of listening when I was a kid because I couldn't see the blackboard. It wasn't because I was sitting in the back of the class; I just couldn't see well. I had no idea my vision was that poor and said nothing to my mom or dad so I could get glasses. I thought everyone saw the world that way. And it happened gradually over 3-4 years, so I had no idea that there was anything wrong. I had 20/200 vision in one eye and 20/300 vision in the other.
To function at school, I realized that if I focused and listened closely to what the teachers were saying, I didn’t need to see the board or really need to take notes because I would remember what they said. I didn't only hear the teachers, I was listening to their words, tone, emotions, intention. I developed an amazing memory this way. I managed to get all A's, so that told me something was working right.
I also learned that listening goes beyond hearing people talk to include observation. As a kid, when you get all A's and are introverted, you typically aren't very popular. I had a hard time fitting in, so when I did find a group that would let me hang out with them, I would spend a lot of time listening and observing so I could find ways to contribute best to the conversations and group. I'd find out what they liked to talk about, what topics were off-limits, how the power structures worked, and how they interacted. I was an observant kid.
I didn’t know this then, but these events were teaching me how to listen – listen to words, listen to actions, listen to behaviors – and to understand what listening really meant. I didn’t realize that people aren’t normally this observant and this was a unique skill I was acquiring. Most of us think everyone lives like we do, but I’ve been learning over the years that this is not true. It wasn’t until I started working that I realized my listening skills, and the curiosity I learned by my personal emphasis on listening, were important to business.
Curiosity comes with listening well. When I was learning how to listen, I was discovering what my teachers had to say and why. I wanted to learn. Same with getting to know new kids. I think my desire to fit in made me curious about people's motivation. Curiosity became the ultimate driver behind my focused listening. I took this curiosity with me into my educational pursuits, work, social life - just about everywhere.
Don't miss it!
CXTalks on May 22 will feature speakers and professionals around the Dallas/Fort Worth area discussing topics related to customer experience, user experience, andmore.
I'm giving a 10 minute talk, "Listening with Empathy to Connect."
Don't be shy - use my discount code for 20% off: MARY20
We sometimes don’t realize that the motivation for why we take an action speaks volumes about our true purpose. Intent is important. When most people are listening in a conversation or in class, their intent could be to listen to respond, meaning to share their thoughts or be ready to raise their hand and participate. I don’t think we realize it, but our attitudes when we are listening to respond are focused on making sure that we communicate what we want to say; it’s not always an approach concerned about understanding the other person or situation.
By listening to respond, we are objectifying the speaker. We don’t mean to do this; it’s all subconscious. We may be so excited to communicate an idea that we blurt it out, but in the process we aren’t respecting the other person’s ideas or expression (I am often guilty of this). Again, not intentional, not mean-spirited, but that’s the impact of listening to respond in that case. Or we may cut someone off while speaking because we may think they are saying something inaccurate. It’s subconscious, but at the same time, you just discounted what the person was saying. Even if the person got their facts slightly wrong, they were trying to add to the conversation and your correction prevented that. We'll also sometimes gloss over someone's contribution to the conversation by not closely listening. That person may need to repeat themselves in the future. The need for that speaker to do that discounts the point they were making.
In all cases, if you are listening to respond in a conversation, focused on making your points and not being curious about what the other person is thinking or trying to communicate, it will be difficult, if not impossible to listen and understand the speaker's true message. Your purpose is always clear - to talk, to communicate, to express yourself. You aren't focused on learning about the other person and what they are trying to express. This is the first step to connecting with someone else to build a relationship.
This is why shifting your motivation to curiosity when you are in a conversation can change its entire tone and it will immediately help you to become a better listener. When you arrive curious, you naturally want to learn more about the person communicating. You are more easily able to build empathy and validate if you really understand what the other person is saying - factually and emotionally. That means the person needs to fully express their idea, and if you don't understand it right away - ask more questions. Be curious!
Lynn Borton hosts a talk show in Virginia about curiosity, called Choose to be Curious. I have interviewed her twice and she’s one of my favorite people to listen to, mainly because of her approach to life using curiosity. Every time I talk to her, she reminds me how being curious about people and situations really changes how you approach problems – and helps you have a happier, more positive approach to live. From the conversations with Lynn, the key element to curiosity rests in asking questions – and then listening.
Curiosity provides you with an opportunity to look at a person or situation in a new, non-judgmental way and to be open to a new perspective. This is great for learning. When you are learning, typically you aren’t judging what you are learning as right or wrong. It just is. It’s like a fact. The earth is the third rock from the sun. Nothing to debate. Water is wet. Nothing to debate. My client would prefer if I offered an online course so he could attend when he wants. Nothing to debate.
Sometimes I think we need to approach customer feedback with curiosity. The phrase “the customer is always right,” alludes to this idea. The customer’s perspective of the situation is what you need to learn about, and is all that matters. I have heard business owners express contrary reactions to this idea, some outright rejecting that a customer could be right about a situation.
However, I would challenge that statement, "the customer is always right." There isn’t a right or wrong angle regarding a customer situation. What we are really talking about is the customer's perspective. And the challenge of the business owner is to reach an understanding about that situation that provides a positive experience for everyone involved.
Conversations typically aren’t battles, except for debates, which are a separate matter. There is no winner or loser in a conversation. The real goal of a conversation is to find commonalities, shared experiences, connection and ultimately, build a relationship.
If you are looking to build a relationship with your customer, start a conversation with them by being curious. You can only come to consensus and understanding when your motivation is to learn what the other person's perspective is. The first step is to be curious; the next step is to listen closely; the next step is to connect empathetically, and more on that soon.