There’s a lot of talk about the importance of listening skills in building better relationships at home, work and in our communities. Experts in communication cite Active Listening or Reflective Listening as a powerful tool in deepening communication. In this kind of listening, the listener places full attention on the designated speaker and repeats back what was said without interpreting or adding their own ideas about the matter.
There are a variety of ways we can “reflect” the speaker that go beyond the content of what’s being said. Reflecting includes mirroring what we see, hear and sense, including the choice of words, the speed of talking, the rhythm, the pauses, the volume of the voice, the tone. Reflective listening also pays attention to and sensitively plays back the speaker’s body language: posture, facial expressions, and hand movements.
The outcome is amazing. Reflectively listening to someone helps them feel understood and invites them to connect with you.
It has another very potent effect. The person who is mirrored with genuine intent of understanding bonds to and wants to follow the listener.
When I was learning about this early on in my studies, I participated in a year-long series of monthly, all-day, weekend workshops. One of them was about listening and leading. During the morning session we learned the elements of fully attending to the designated speaker, concentrating on what he wanted us to see and hear and feel, feeding back what he shared. We learned to reflect his words, pace and gestures. It was fascinating.
The instructor reminded us of how we mirror babies and the effect it has. The baby makes a face; we copy it. The baby delights in our reflecting and tries another expression or gesture. The more the baby witnesses herself reflected, the more engaged and attached she becomes to the person replicating her communication.
Babies as well as people of all ages enjoy feeling known and understood.
The instructor said that once the speaker experiences the listener as understanding him, the speaker begins to trust the listener. Once that trust is established, the speaker relaxes, lets down his guard, and passes the baton over to the listener to let the listener lead. People stay connected to those of us who “get” them. We have created a critical bond of trust and they are willing to follow us to keep that affirming connection.
To prove it to ourselves, we were given an assignment to practice over lunch. We were to find someone to mirror and notice the results.
That sounded powerful but I was skeptical. I wasn’t sure it was as simple as that.
So, I created a test. I chose a situation that would be difficult enough to prove or disprove the theory.
The class was held in SoHo in NYC. There were lots of shops with intriguing windows. One in particular caught my eye. It featured a live mannequin who came to life and changed positions every 28 seconds. [Either my watch was slow or hers was fast, but it was consistently 28 seconds on mine.]
I waited until two women who I imagined were in their 20’s stopped to look at the mannequin. They seemed enchanted. I decided they would be good subjects. The job I assigned myself was to join with them, reflect them, then just at the critical moment when the mannequin was about to come to life, get them to follow me down the street. Pretty bold, right?
I moved close to them, copying their postures and beginning to nod in rhythm to their talking. I laughed when they did. I gestured at the window when they did. I made a little eye contact, smiling when they did. We went through two cycles of 28 seconds and then I timed my move.
As we hit 27 seconds, I slowly turned and started walking away.
It was like a magnet. As reluctant as they might have been to leave just at that magical moment, the two turned and followed me down the street. I could hardly believe it. They let me lead them.
Listening is about keying into words, speed of talking, eye movements, body movements, tone, and breathing. It incorporates all key senses – sight, sound, sensation and emotions.
Let me share another instance of “listening and leading” that’s particularly relevant for coaches.
When I’m running a coaching group, I take its temperature as I enter the room. Is the energy high, medium or low? How many are talking? Is their speech animated or laborious or non-descript? Are they sitting up straight or slouching? Leaning in or leaning away? Are they looking at each other or looking down or outside the circle? There is usually a visible and palpable collective posture.
This gives me clues on how to verbally and non-verbally reflect the group mood, so I can help them enter the discussion. Once they feel “understood” in the moment, I’ve established myself as trustworthy and they are far more likely to allow me to raise the ante.
For example, when I speak to a tired group in their tone and speed, saying something slowly and in a lower tone, like, “it was a long day today, wasn’t it? Thanks so much for coming, even so.” People will nod or add their own feelings about how it WAS a long day, giving me more fodder to understand and play back.
You can observe them beginning to come back to life: sitting in closer to the table, looking up, glancing at others, nodding, smiling sometimes, talking with a bit more animation. When that happens, you can start to lead more actively, modeling what you’d like them to mirror back. As you begin to talk a little faster, smile, lean into the table yourself, they follow suit, raising the energy and participation levels for the whole group.
Listening gives you the license to lead!