By Sharif Maghraby (Creative Coaching Maestro at Winnovate)
We were all getting ready for our big meeting – negotiating an important and exclusive content acquisition deal from a major US network for our new Pay TV platform. There were ten people in the boardroom from the legal, commercial, and marketing departments of both companies. As the meeting got underway, everyone was very courteous – making small talk, smiling and cracking insider industry jokes about the latest series of ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Black Mirror’. I could sense a rapid sense of rapport building from their open and relaxed body language, genuine smiles and sustained eye contact. It all seemed very pleasant.
After about twenty minutes into the meeting – as we got to the commercial terms - I noticed a sudden increase in the intensity and volume of their voices and saw how people started to turn away in their chairs when they felt uneasy or were in silent disagreement. I felt the uneasiness begin to form from the subtle changes in their body language.
When we got to the legal terms - things really heated up. I recall someone standing up and storming out of the room, upset and angry. People were shouting at the same time, fighting to make themselves heard, struggling to get their points across. The energy in the room had transformed from relaxed to tense - from courteous to really uncomfortable.
I felt compelled to turn the meeting around and so I decided to take the lead. I started asking everybody questions – trying to gather information about everyone’s specific objectives and priorities. All the while, I tried to maintain an engaging and confident communication style whilst respecting everyone’s individual paradigm. I repeated their messages back to them to ensure that communication and comprehension had taken place.
What was this magical, interactive and highly engaging skill that fostered mutual understanding, increased harmony and created a feeling of respect between people?
It was the simple but highly effective art of active listening.
In the Arabic language, there is a very clear distinction between the verbs “sama’a”, “unsuta’h” and “asgha’a” which have interesting definitions. The first, “sama’a” is defined as ‘the act of becoming aware through the sense of hearing’ which gives the impression that it is almost a mechanical function. The second “unsuta’h” is defined as ‘to listen with intent and attention’ which gives us a more accurate picture of an engaged listener. The third verb “asgha’a” refers to even higher level of ‘listening with the heart’ and conveys a sense of increased rapport and intimacy. This differentiation reminds me of a quote by the Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky when he said: “to listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.” Yes, a duck hears also. There’s a crucial difference between hearing what someone says and actually listening to them. Hearing is really nothing more than picking up a sound. Listening, on the other hand, involves interpreting a message and understanding it. Listening requires intent, effort and attention.
And what happens when we don’t listen? Well - the people that we are not listening to may resent us for not paying attention (just as we would if the situation were reversed) and this creates alienation. People may feel that they are being pushed away from each other due to the nature of ineffective communication – and that creates distance. And simply put, not listening is inefficient. Nothing can get done if messages or directions are not really understood or acted upon.
Learning how to listen properly can be challenging at first, because for the most part, it is not an innate skill. Most people have to learn how to do it. That’s okay, though, because it can definitely be learned. I used to be bad at listening. I would frequently misinterpret what was being said to me because I did not commit myself to really listening to the message. And I was guilty of saying what I had prepared to say – regardless of what was being said. Now, I focus on active listening when I interact with people. It has drastically increased the success of my interpersonal relationships with others because it shows them that I genuinely value what they have to say—and respect them for saying it.
Sue Patton, author of “The Courage to be Yourself” sums it up beautifully: ‘Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.’
We can become much more effective at listening by not only concentrating on what others are saying but also making a conscious effort to understand the nonverbal messages as well. This simply involves paying attention to the other person’s posture, tone, volume, gestures and facial expressions. When you pay attention to what is happening non-verbally, you will significantly enhance your understanding. The fact that non-verbal signals and tonality make up 93 percent of communication while listening to the words alone will give you only 7 percent of the message being conveyed is something that many of us know but forget or fail to consider in our communication. Other skills like avoiding assumptions and early evaluations, getting defensive and practicing paraphrasing can also skyrocket our ability to empathize with others.
Active listening (which is the process of listening to a person and giving active feedback to the sender of the message to ensure accuracy and comprehension) takes this skill a step further. With active listening, you strive to eliminate any misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the message. When you actively listen, you are engaging with the other person in a two-way feedback loop to make sure everything is being transmitted and received properly.
This works especially well when you are discussing intangible concepts, such as emotions. If your colleague says, “What you told me the other day made me feel unappreciated” - active listening would sound something like, “It sounds like you’re saying my comments made you feel like I wasn’t showing appreciation for you. Is that right?” What if you said something like, “Okay, so, you felt angry at me, right?” Your colleague might correct you by saying, “No, I said I was feeling unappreciated. Your comments made me sad and hurt, not angry.”
By going through this process, you will significantly increase your understanding of your partner’s feelings. Rather than assuming the meaning of your partner’s words, you clarify it with active listening and then can prevent any misunderstanding.
You really want to increase empathy, collaboration and sharing? Then listen. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus taught, we have two ears and one mouth - so we can listen twice as much as we speak.