Fierce Conversations, Part II

Copyright 2006 Tim Link

In the first article on fierce conversations, we examined the fact that doing business is essentially an extended series of conversations. We also talked about the fact that ongoing business success is dependent upon the ability to regularly engage in conversations that are robust, thought provoking and passionate. These are what we refer to as fierce conversations. This concept is so elegantly simple, yet so very critical, that we are devoting a series of three newsletters to the concept.

This is the second of three articles on the subject of fierce conversations and in this issue, we focus on listening. Why it is so important, why few of us are consistently effective listeners and what can be done to improve listening skills. We also address the use of silence which is one of the most powerful, yet underutilized tools for effective conversation.

Are you listening?

As humans on this planet, we all have a basic need to feel understood. In order to feel understood, we need to feel heard. We need to know that the person we are talking to has put their own thoughts and agenda aside so they can give us their full attention. If this doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter who’s right, who’s smarter or who has a better solution. Without truly listening, it’s virtually impossible to reach a positive outcome to a fierce conversation.

Who hasn’t had the experience of having a frustrating conversation? One where we felt like the other person wasn’t really listening. Where you could tell they were just waiting for their chance to speak. How productive are those conversations? Not very. When one party doesn’t feel heard the conversation breaks down and both parties leave frustrated.

In order to really listen, we must be fully present. What are you doing when engaged in conversation? When you’re on the phone are you also typing away at your keyboard? When having a conversation, it is not time to be multi-tasking. Check in with yourself. Are you thinking about what you’re going to say next? What you’re going to have for lunch? So often, our brain takes a break while in the middle of a conversation. And when we allow this to happen, we undermine our ability to connect through listening.

When we do not give the other party our 100% attention, we essentially tell them they are not important to us. We will also miss many subtle cues that tell us what’s going on beneath the surface. Ultimately we lose the chance to have a fierce conversation.

If listening is so important, why is it so hard?

Many people think they are good listeners, when more often that not, they’re just good talkers. Instead of tuning in fully to the person across from them, people spend their time sharing knowledge, offering tips or solutions and providing feedback. The result is that one of the two people in the conversation feels talked to rather than listened to.

One reason why listening is so difficult can be traced back to basic brain science. On average, our mind processes between 600 and 1000 words per minute. Yet, most people speak at the rate of about 125 words per minute. This leaves quite a gap in speaking speed versus processing speed. This gap is a temptation to tune out. We could call this mouth speed versus mind speed. So what happens in the act of listening, or trying to listen, is that the brain starts multi-tasking, and can go on a number of its own little detours before coming back to the person that is speaking. So that by the time the other person finishes their thoughts, we’ve taken a mini-vacation!

Tips for Listening

1. Listening does not equal agreeing. Active listening requires you put your agenda aside for as long it takes to be sure you understand the other person’s position. The more complex the issue, the longer it takes. When we listen instead of talking we can start to feel like we’re implying that we agree and are tempted to start defending our position. Resist the temptation! Just because you are listening to their words, emotions and body language, it doesn’t mean you are agreeing with their position.

2. Questions only. Questions are much more effective than answers in provoking learning. Many of us are eager to show what we know, to demonstrate our value. So as soon as someone says, “This is my issue,” we leap in with suggestions, stories about our experience, quotes from the latest journals without noticing that the other person’s eyes have glazed over. And you should only ask questions to which you do not know the answer. Otherwise it’s not a question, it’s a manipulation.

3. How do you listen when you know you’re going to be tested? You listen with more intention and focus than usual. Make it a point to repeat back to the other person what you hear them saying. It can feel odd at first but it serves two purposes. First, it challenges you to listen more carefully than usual. Secondly, it demonstrates your understanding of their point.

4. Check your assumptions about motive. When we assume that each party wants a positive outcome, we are better at listening. When we start to get frustrated with each other, it’s easy to ascribe a negative emotion to the other person. It can help to check in and remind yourself that each party is trying to create the best outcome. If you’re not confident that each party is striving for the best outcome, you have more important things to talk about!

5. Listen for the needs and values behind the words. What does your companion need that they might not be getting? Is it validation, support, or a safe place to vent? What do they value? Is it excellence, harmony, achievement or adventure? When you clue into needs and values, you ask better questions, identify un-named issues and ultimately dig deeper into what really matters.

6. The conversation hasn’t ended just because the conversation has ended. Fierce conversation will often leave us with points to ponder and emotions to sort out. It can often help the ongoing dialogue move forward if you schedule a follow up conversation.

Make room for silence.

Fierce conversations make room for silence. The more emotionally loaded the issue, the more important silence becomes. Silence enables us each to reflect on our thoughts and achieve new levels of insight and integration. Silence can often be the turning point in a conversation. It also creates space for everyone in the room to offer their opinion.

Silence is an under-utilized tool. It often makes us feel uncomfortable. Many of us unconsciously think we have to fill silences and that something is wrong if no one is talking.

The following are indications that silence might move the conversation forward:
• If you find yourself interrupting by talking over someone else.
• Thinking of what you’re going to say when someone is talking.
• Knee jerk reactions where you respond with out thinking first.
• When you find yourself “demonstrating your expertise” because you feel insecure.
• Offering advice before the other person has had a chance to fully explain the situation.
• When you’re doing most of the talking.
• When you create a distraction by changing topics.
• Saying the same thing over and over again.

When used incorrectly, silence can be dangerous too. Silence can be passive aggressive or result in disengaging from the conversation. It can be used to avoid topics that are uncomfortable or ones we’d rather not look at. If you question whether or not silence is productive, take a look at your feelings and motives. If you find yourself pulling away or observe your companion pulling away, say so and get the conversation back on track.

Although there are at least two people in a conversation, it only takes one person who chooses to actively listen and make room for silence to have a fierce conversation. This opportunity works in your favor because YOU can be that person. In the coming weeks, try something different, stay present, listen closely, ask questions and make room for silence. You will be amazed at the outcome.