There is a kind of non-listening that goes on in our society and organizations that is distracted and disjointed, and often marked by interruptions. This non-listening doesn’t focus on the person speaking. Rather, the listeners try their hardest to get their ideas into the conversation.
If you’ve experienced this, you know how frustrating this can be both for someone trying to be heard, as well as for the listener trying to stay focused. Many of us don’t know how to listen, or don’t care.
This disjointed listening doesn’t work well for completely understanding and being present to the person who is speaking. It cuts off creativity and hijacks people’s brains with their frustration at not feeling heard. I’ve heard leaders state that their employees aren’t creative when in reality, they simply haven’t been fully listened to.
Generating new ideas calls for a level of listening that forgoes frustration, and it is completely possible to achieve it with discipline and practice. Let’s call this “generative listening” (a term coined by Nancy Kline in her book, More Time to Think).
Generative listening can open up latent creativity. It isn’t easy, and it requires you to:
Slow down. The hyper speed of our organizations makes slowing down difficult, but not impossible. Be intentional about creating the space needed to slow the conversation down. Consider the surroundings you might need for a listening environment: as best you can, eliminate disruptions (including the electronic kind – phones, computers, as well has the human kind). Create a safe space without barriers when you can, even when you are listening virtually.
Forego interrupting. The impulse to interrupt, especially when you disagree with the speaker, is strong and real. Consider yourself a partner in the conversation, and realize that your time will come to get your thoughts out there. If you are slowing down, this makes the waiting for your turn easier. And when it’s your turn to speak, don’t hog the limelight. Make sure everyone has their turn and that your time on the stage is limited.
Have genuine interest. Cultivate genuine interest in the speaker through curiosity and fascination with what they have to say. Be open to being pleasantly surprised at their brilliance, and when your turn comes, ask open-ended questions that will help them to clarify their thoughts and help you to understand them more thoroughly.
Be still and allow silence. This listening practice also requires stillness, a settling within yourself so that you can be fully present and available to the person who is speaking. The amazing thing about stillness and silence is that they work together to help us be fully present and ready to ask those open-ended questions that will provide clarity.
Generative listening is important, if for no other reason than you and your team deserve it. It also has the added advantage of generating respect for each other’s ideas. Be watching for times to listen deeply. You may find yourself and your team brimming with newfound creativity.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.