The best philosophy for listening I’ve ever heard came from a completely unexpected place. I was in court, watching my nephew, who just so happens to be a Deputy District Attorney. As he completed his opening argument, the judge turned to the jury and gave them “instructions” for deliberating the guilt or innocence of the accused.
The instructions read: “It is important that you keep an open mind throughout this trial. Evidence can only be presented a piece at a time. Do not form or express an opinion about this case while the trial is going on. You must not decide on a verdict until after you have heard all the evidence and have discussed it thoroughly with your fellow jurors in your deliberations.
“You must decide what the facts are in this case. And, I repeat, your verdict must be based only on the evidence that you hear or see in this courtroom. Do not let bias, sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion influence your verdict.
“You must follow the law as I explain it to you, even if you do not agree with the law.”
Who knew that the civil courts could devise such brilliant advice for how to truly listen? And to show that you genuinely care!
I think the Instructions to the Jury, or some version of them, should be taught in communication classes, included in wedding vows, and read to every couple before marriage counseling. They should be read before a dad talks with his kids. Before an executive talks with their management team. Suspending one’s judgment and truly listening to the merits of what somebody is saying in an unbiased way is a profound and powerful way of putting one’s own emotions and reactions on hold and tuning in to the substance of any given conversation.
Now, it’s not that you’re not entitled to your own opinions and emotions. When people say stuff, you’re going to want to react. That’s natural. But what is required for good listening is to temporarily put your own feelings and opinions aside in service to the other person. Right now, if I’m listening to you, it’s about you. It’s not about what I feel, what I may think, or whether I agree. It’s not about my personal reaction. All of that can come later—after I have a true understanding of your position. And, if I’ve done a good job demonstrating I care about you by listening well, then you’re more likely to want to listen to me in return.
Executive coaching shows a client how to maximize every conversation by being an exceptional listener. At the beginning of a conversation, I suggest both parties make a statement of good intention. “What I want from bringing this issue up is . . .” That conveys good faith. I call this technique “prefacing.”
Prefacing means, quite literally, setting a clear and positive tone for the conversation that’s about to take place. In a corporate environment, you might say, “The reason I wanted to talk with you is to __________. I’d like to talk for a few minutes, without interruption or comment. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts and brainstorm about how to move forward. I’m hoping we can come out of this with __________ [the desired outcome].”
Prefacing is simply setting the tone for a conversation; it lets the other parties know what you want to discuss, your good intentions and a desired outcome.
This can be immensely helpful in sensitive, emotionally-charged conversations where the potential for greater clarity, trust, and understanding is needed to bring about change. Whether it’s your partner or sibling or best friend, giving the other person ten to fifteen minutes to state their case, explain their intention, and articulate their desired outcome sets the table for communication and relationship breakthroughs.
Prefacing is important because most of the time, we go into conversations blindly. We assume what the other person, or the group, wants and expects. Then, afterward, we wonder, “Isn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that why you brought this up?” We don’t realize that people bring things up for a variety of reasons. And sometimes—perhaps even most of the time—they just want to know that somebody cares enough to really listen. When two people are really listening to one another, the possibilities for making new agreements, healing old wounds, getting through impasses, and creating a positive future together are unlimited.
True listening doesn’t mean, “All right, yeah, okay, got it, thanks” or “Yes, but . . .” These phrases smack of impatience. I’m talking about listening that’s real and authentic. Selfless. Uncontaminated. Patient. Compassionate. Free of projection or unsolicited advice. It’s about you, the other person and your mutual well-being. Good listening is time and attention given freely and unbegrudgingly, in service to understanding the other person—and whatever’s on their mind. This listening has no agenda other than to care and learn. There is no fixing, no analysis or opinion. It is the simplest and purest expression of a meeting between two souls.
As Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet, “And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart.” Even when there is silence, we possess the breathtaking capacity to really listen from heart to heart.
– Dr. Ken Druck
(pg. 71 of The Real Rules of Life)
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Copyright Ken Druck, Ph.D., resilience expert, speaker, consultant, and author of The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Permission to reprint granted with proper credit.