When I began my diversity career as a facilitator at IBM in the mid-1990’s, one of my favorite activities to lead was a listening exercise. We matched participants in pairs and they each had the chance to be the listener and the speaker in the exercise.
Imagine how you would react as the listener if you were give this directive:
“When you are listening to your partner, maintain eye contact, do not respond verbally or non-verbally. Your job is just to listen. Be there as receiver of their story. Just listen. In your mind, attempt to avoid mental chatter, avoid thinking about what you are going to speak about when it’s your turn. Avoid turning their story around in your mind to how it relates to your story. Silence the little voice in your head that often is critical and self focused. JUST LISTEN to the other person’s story.”
We instructed the speaker to discuss a neutral topic for 60 to 90 seconds, such as “my hometown,” or “my best vacation.” After, the individuals switched roles so that everyone had the chance to both speak and listen. Easy enough, right?
Here is feedback we received on listening:
- That was so tough. I felt so weird just looking at my partner and not giving them any feedback.
- My little voice was going crazy! I couldn’t really focus on my partner’s story. I thought it would be easier than it was.
- I wish I could have nodded a little bit to let my partner know I could hear them.
- That felt more like 60 minutes than 60 seconds!
Listening is hard!
What we were exploring was the power of the unconscious mind and the fast and slow brain dynamic that is always in play (but not always noticed).
The fast brain evolved for survival, the instinct all animals have, that protects the ego, the “I.” Simply put, it’s responsible for that “little voice” in your head. This is the voice that our “listener” participants heard while trying to focus on their partners. This voice often sends messages designed to help us “look good,” and not embarrass ourselves. It is always trying to prove our worth.
Sadly, when that voice is allowed to run free, it gets in the way of true connection and authentic, open communication in our relationships. It is especially attuned to difference: The more the other person is different, the louder it tends to become. What we were trying to teach participants is the art of mindfulness.
Borrowed from Eastern philosophical practices like meditation, conscious breathing, and present moment awareness, mindfulness helps us sharpen the ability to silence our mental chatter. It allows us to be more generous listeners, avoid snap judgments, and to assume positive intent. Mindfulness is very helpful in creating a more inclusive workplace culture. Not to mention better relationships with spouses and partners, parents, children, and friends.
Years after the IBM listening exercise, I was working with my colleagues at Executive Diversity Services during inclusion workshops at Pepsico, when I learned about Ting:
Translated from Mandarin, Ting means empathetic or deep listening.
Ting refers to a composite of all of the critical elements of effective listening:
- The ear is necessary for hearing the words spoken;
- The mind/YOU, for interpreting the meaning of what has been seen and heard;
- The eyes, for seeing the message conveyed by the body;
- And the heart, for being able to feel what is wanted and needed from the relationship.
What does it feel like when you have been listened to by someone who practices this empathetic listening? For me, it feels amazing. It feels like I’m worthy, important, and really heard for my point of view. It makes me want to return that level of patience, understanding, and inclusion to the other person and to others in my life.
Try it today. The next time someone at work is sharing a story, a problem, a triumph, or a feeling, practice listening with the concept of Ting. With your whole self: ears, eyes, mind, and heart. Ting will help you silence that fast brain little voice in your head.
We all can be better listeners. And we all have something to gain by making it less about ourselves and more about our partners, colleagues, and customers.
Let me know in the comments section how it goes for you!