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The first step is to listen—and then listen some more

I used to be a pretty bad listener. This realization hit me about 20 years ago, after an internal conflict cropped up among the employees in my PR business. The workplace had become polarized, and we felt compelled to hire an outside facilitator to get at the heart of the problem.

Among the concerns that emerged during this process was that I wasn’t listening to my employees. I was so busy when they came to me with a personal workplace concern that I would often jump to conclusions about what they were talking about.

I was then coached, willingly, not to assume, to listen with more empathy and to fix the problem later.

This advice transformed my business relationships. Not only did my employees feel like they were finally being heard, but clients also started to suddenly describe me as a good listener.

It was true, at least compared to before I learned I was listening challenged. By sitting silent for longer, paying closer attention to what people were saying and trying to understand how they were feeling, I realized that listening was a skill I should work at, often.

It sounds like a simple solution—to just listen—but a lot of business leaders and communicators like myself are surprisingly lacking this critical skill. Instead of hearing people out, their complaints and concerns (even praise), many decisions are made based on assumptions and not actual input or feedback.

Listening is a skill Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says has a sole purpose of helping the other person speaking unload and suffer less. The hard part is to not react or offer advice but simply listen, at least at first.

“During the process of deep listening we can learn so much about our own perception and their perception,” he told Oprah in an interview in 2012. In his view, the trick is a sincere, silent interest in what is being said and holding off on reacting or correcting misconceptions until another time.

Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloane School of Management with a PhD in economics and management, is another expert in deep listening. I interviewed Scharmer in my latest book, where he talked about the idea of moving beyond “downloading” our ingrained default positions and deep-rooted habits and thoughts. The way to do this is through better listening.

According to Scharmer, it’s something we need to work at, not unlike how we train certain muscles to improve our fitness level. “This is training the muscle of empathy, getting out of old patterns,” Scharmer says.

It starts, Scharmer says, with suspending old habits of judgment, opening the heart and beginning to see problems through the eyes of others, and then letting go by allowing other ideas come in.

It’s easier said than done, especially in the business world, where Scharmer says there’s often a huge fear of failure or of losing status—and a lot at stake. But he believes an open mind and heart are invaluable because “disconfirming data is the source of innovation.”

It’s a discovery process Cambridge-educated lawyer and author Anne Giardini, who is also chancellor of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, went through when she was president of Weyerhaeuser Co. and negotiating with First Nations. When I spoke to Giardini for my book, she recalled the anger some of these communities brought to the bargaining table. It took her aback at first, until she realized it was the main negotiating tool they had. She immediately became more empathetic.

“By putting yourself in the other person's position, like that moment I had with the First Nations, to understand suddenly, see their position and its sources—it's transformative,” Giardini says.

Today, she believes, as I do, that we have to change the way we perceive others if we have any hope of moving forward and getting things done.

The way I see it, there are three simple steps to overcoming conflict through listening. It begins with an open conversation:
1. Encourage people to speak their mind.
2. Then shut up and listen. The empathy will come. When they stop talking, get comfortable with the silence. They may have more to say.
3. If you must say something, let it be “tell me more.” Save sharing what you believe for another time. By allowing them to talk—and actually hearing what they’re saying—real communication can emerge.

For many of us, listening and not talking doesn’t come naturally. It requires practice and patience, and can lead to life-changing results.

James Hoggan is a public relations consultant. His latest book, published in May, is I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up. Follow James Hoggan on Twitter.