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Apr 11, 2022

Talk to any HR leader, and most would concur that their role is as much about listening to people as it is about talking to them. Yet ask them if they know what type of listener they actually are, and most probably don’t know.

Discovering and exploring our own listening preferences is an important exercise. Understanding how we listen allows us to understand how we prioritize information and outcomes, as well as recognize how other people experience us during our conversations. But how we get to this understanding is an activity that is often overlook.

So why don’t more of us do this? Well, in my experience, leaders have a similar response to this seemingly straightforward question. They tend to tell me they would love to change their communication style and be more cognizant of the impact they’re having on others, but – and here’s the big reason – “they just can’t”. They say: “I am who I am” – as if their listening style is something that can’t be changed.

But I take a rather different view. Anytime leaders say, “I can’t,” they are just leaving out one vital word from the end of this sentence: “easily”.

We need to remove the listening disconnect

When people say they “can’t” they are actually experiencing a disconnect between either the perceived cognitive, emotional, and/or physical effort they need to commit, and the perceived reward they will receive for their efforts. If the effort outweigs the reward, leaders feel like they can’t do it. But, it the perceived reward outweighs the perceived effort, they feel like they can.

So, moving from “I can’t” to “I did” simply starts with recalibrating the perceived efforts and rewards involved with the change in behavior being asked.

So what does this mean practically?

Let’s consider that many professional and personal conversations feature at least one person who is looking to obtain information and at least one person who may be asked to share information.

People seeking information have two choices: They can either adapt their approach to fit the needs of their audience, or they can attempt to force their audience to comply with their default communication approach. This choice highlights an unfortunate reality that many leaders have difficulty accepting: that the person with the information is in total control because they will eventually choose what information to share or withhold, and why. Most of the time, they will almost certainly choose the option that makes them feel better, regardless of the perceived consequences.

Listeners who are captive to their default approaches and refuse to adapt to their audiences are leaving information on the table – and definitely blame other people for not sharing this information with them. In other words, the more you try to demand control of the conversation, the less control you have.

This next statement will almost certainly feel counterintuitive: The best way to maintain control of most conversations is to allow your counterpart to feel as if they are in control.

Don’t force people to ‘push-back’

Metaphorically speaking, if you push someone, their first reaction is to push you back – and harder. Then you respond in kind, and the situation quickly escalates. If you don’t push someone, they don’t have to push back. If they aren’t pushing back, you are in control of the conversation and can patiently follow their lead to guide the conversation where you want it to go. Get it?

Let me give you an example. For much of my career I conducted non-custodial interrogations. My subjects were not under arrest; I could not hold them against their will; and they were free to leave anytime they wanted. As a result, I started every conversation by telling my subjects they were free to leave at any point.

When people would threaten to get up and leave my interrogations, I would respond by saying, “Go ahead, you’re free to leave anytime you want.” That answer defeated the argument they were hoping to start and they continued participating in the interview. Of course, I’ve had a few people just sit in front of me for an hour and refuse to say a word, but it took eleven years for someone to actually get up and walk out.

What I’m really saying, is that if you want people to listen to you, and you want to listen to them, you just need to change the rules of control.

This lesson is constantly reinforced to me by none other than my dog! My wife and I chose to buy a house out in the country because we enjoy the tranquility. We didn’t realize that we had purchased a home in an area where people commonly release dogs they no longer want into the woods. We’ve found, and helped rescue, a dozen dogs since we’ve lived here. We chose to keep one for ourselves and she is a loving (and crazy) little girl. But she also has a strong will, loves to play, and usually only listens when she wants to. It’s pretty common for her to run out into the yard when I let her out at night. If I chase after her, she runs away. But if I call her a few times and open the door as if I’m going inside without her, she runs back to the house. She is only going to come back inside when she wants to, and my approach has a significant impact on her decision.

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