Unconditional Listening

This past year, Dave and I attended Warren Bennis’ memorial service. Great leaders and great friends spoke, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, and all of them said a variant of the same thing. They felt better, smarter and more inspired after spending time with Warren. He didn’t come to meetings with his great ideas, leadership models, or pressing life concerns. He came to discover yours. When people spent time with Warren, he was accepting, empathetic and warm. People felt validated, so ideas were crystalized, and they left with a greater sense of purpose and passion. He listened unconditionally.

I just spent three days at the annual Hudson Institute Learning Conference hearing amazing speakers, interacting with panels and participating in workshops to learn how to better serve as a coach. And at every turn, listening came up again and again, in different ways. As with Warren’s memorial service, I was left with the view that listening unconditionally is an important skill in leadership coaching.

Our brains are hard-wired to do the opposite of listening unconditionally— listen for quick judgments. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors who could make quick determinations between the rustling of grass or a tiger survived. Those that wandered around, taking it all in, became lunch.

Our world today is different, and we are less likely to take creative risks or share with someone that we feel has passed judgment on us. According to Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence, the main purposes of listening are to judge, to reject or to connect. People determine if they are being judged or connected to in .07 seconds. How do you feel when you sense you’re being judged? How creative are you? Are you good at solving problems? Do you feel inspired? Thoughtful? Or do you want to find the safest answer as fast as you can in order to get out of the conversation?

If you listen unconditionally, that means that you are going into the conversation with the primary purpose of connecting, not deciding if you are going to accept or reject what the other person is talking about. Regardless of what the other says, you are coming from a place of curiosity. Nothing said will faze you. Next time you have a conversation, whether with a client, family member or coworker, rather than start with your thoughts, ask the other person for theirs. Continue to ask open-ended questions and just… listen. Do not analyze, do not plan, do not start making any choices. Then ask another open-ended question. If you’re stuck, one way to practice coming up with questions is using the click-down tool. Find the key word or phrase that would be blue and underlined if the conversation was transcribed on a webpage, and ask an open-ended question about it. To find out more (and see a video demonstrating the technique), check it out here.

Listening unconditionally is not easy, but it is not impossible. In fact, the more you practice it the more natural it will become. So I challenge you. See how many conversations you can have in the next week where you only ask questions. You will find that you talk less and hear a lot more. In fact, you may even be inspired. I hope that you’ll share your experiences with us below.

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