Have you ever experienced a scenario that goes something like this? Someone comes to you and tells you about a problem they’re having. You listen for a while, and you assume that they’re looking for feedback, some advice on how to deal with the situation. What’s more, you’re pretty sure you have a good solution. So you share your wisdom to help them out.
Naturally, they jump for joy and throw their appreciative arms around you, right? Not so much. In fact, instead of their face lighting up and showering you with gratitude, your advice lands with a thud. Worse than that, you may even get feedback that you’re not really getting it. If it’s a co-worker, you may get a “thanks-anyway.” If it’s your spouse, you might have a fight on your hands. Either way, they turn around and do the exact opposite of what you suggested.
What’s up with that, anyway?
Open Your Ears and Zip Your Lips
Here’s the deal. Sometimes people just need to know that you’re LISTENING and you’re sympathetic to what they’re facing. Nothing more. Nothing less. I’ve harped for years that a person’s ears are the most important communication tool of all. Still, people continue to tout the importance of creating the right message, effective storytelling, on and on with a persistent emphasis on the quality of what we send out instead of what we take in. Listening is the ultimate communication art, and people are generally not very good at it – including many communication professionals who often get caught in the message-making trap.
Listen Like a Mirror
That said, you don’t have to shut your mouth entirely when someone comes to you with a concern. Instead, you need to hone your “reflective listening” skills. If you’re not familiar with the term, you can probably guess what good reflective listening looks like. In a nutshell, it comes down to two main steps:
- Listening closely to what a person is saying, and observing actions and cues that might provide a deeper understanding of the issues the person is facing.
- Repeating back what you heard to confirm your understanding, and expressing sympathy.
What? No solution? No fixes? No – not unless and until the person asks you for it. Even then, tread lightly and be wary about how far you go with your advice. That’s hard for most people to do. Why? Because we think the most valuable thing we can offer is a solution to the problem. It’s counterintuitive to think that your greatest value might simply be as a sympathetic sounding board.
Still not convinced? Take a look at this very short … very funny … very enlightening video clip called “It’s not about the nail.” If that doesn’t give you a wake-up call … then you need to spend some more time in listening class.
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