Several months ago, a CEO I’ll call Elana, who is deaf, approached me for coaching. As we talked through her leadership skills and organizational political landscape, I quickly realized she was a fantastic listener. As a deaf person, Elana is more intentional about how she listens. In our meetings, Elana and I talk at a slower pace. Elana doesn’t interrupt, and I pause whenever I notice Elana taking notes so that she has the chance to read my lips. We tend to have less confusion because Elana is quick to ask for a clarification if she doesn’t understand a word.
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Despite the slow pace, our conversations cover more ground than my average coaching session because she and I recall our discussions with greater clarity, and we avoid lengthy recaps. We get to the heart of an issue more quickly. Going slower to listen better allows us not only to finish our meetings faster, but also makes the next meeting more effective.
As we worked together this year, I realized that Elana’s Listening and communication strengths in one-on-one meetings are skills that most leaders need, many leaders think they have, but none practice as well as Elana. To listen as slowly and carefully as she does, consider this four-step process that anyone—deaf or hearing—can use:
1. Understand what’s being said. Give your counterpart your full attention, and truly digest what they have to say. “For this I have to be fully present,” says Elana. “I can never multitask during a conversation.” This doesn’t mean that Elana doesn’t have the ability to multitask. She simply chooses not to during a discussion so that she’s focused on the speaker’s lips or the interpreter’s sign language. How much more would you understand about what’s being said in a meeting if you were to single-mindedly focus on the conversation? You can do this more easily by leaving your devices off the table and taking margin notes in meetings. This type of note-taking allows you to pay attention to the speaker and temporarily park your own ideas that may interfere with your listening.
2. Interpret what’s been said. Once you’ve heard someone speak, put their words in context. What does this mean, based on the purpose of your discussion, what the speaker cares most about, or what’s been said before? For example, if your direct report is asking for more resources, you can either interpret that to mean the project is going well and the customers are demanding more features, or that the project is going poorly and people on the team aren’t planning well. It all depends on the context. Use what you know to interpret what they’re trying to tell you, and ask questions if you need more details.
3. Verify what’s been said. Don’t assume you understand; confirm what was said. This can be as simple as paraphrasing what you think you heard. For example, “To make sure I captured your key points, I heard that customer excitement since our last marketing campaign has grown. You’d also like to provide three new key features with our next rollout so you need more headcount. Did I get that right?” This helps you capture the entirety of what’s been said, and it will clarify any points that may have been misinterpreted.
4. Consider how your point of view relates to what’s been said. This is the key step many individuals skip. Many times, the biggest thing getting in our way of listening is waiting to interject with our own point of view. Instead, allow other views to shape your perspective. “I have to think about how my thinking intersects with what I just heard,” says Elana. Her opinion then becomes informed by what others have said, and it lets her build on the ideas of others. Instead of hastily blurting out a counterargument, consider how your points relate to what has just been said and any other research that may have come to light in the meeting. Aim to make your response build on what’s been said, so it becomes a fuller discussion.
This four-step process for listening can feel unnatural when you first put it into practice. Your colleagues might regard you strangely if you’re someone who usually charges forward with your agenda. And you might be tempted to insert your own opinions instead of truly listening, interpreting, verifying, and considering points of intersection. However, with practice, listening slowly will reduce unnecessary cross-talk and conflict and increase clarity—giving you a head start for going faster in your next meeting.