It’s not uncommon to feel like we’re not being listened to in the workplace. The sense can trigger feelings of apparent invisibility, low worth and disengagement and can be very hard to swallow. Not being listened to is a huge barrier to trusting working relationships, whether it happens among a team, top-down or bottom-up, but it’s something we can all do more to change.

Reacting vs responding

Your shackles are duly raised when, during a team meeting, you bring up what you are certain is a valid and very important issue but it doesn’t get any floor-time. You can feel the anger ballooning in your stomach. This issue will impact more than just your own workload. Why is no one listening!

They might initially look the same, but between reacting and responding lies a world of difference. Quite often if we feel hard done by, or that something unjust has occurred, our physical self reacts; our emotions take control, the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, we get hot under the collar and we’re in defence mode.

Responding, however, can change the direction of a seemingly unpleasant interaction. We harness more control by acknowledging our human instinct to stand and fight, tucking it away, and listening to what is actually being said. Responding is guided from within and makes for far clearer communication as well as more conscious listening.

Reacting is immediate, physiological and, as it comes from the unconscious mind, driven by our own learnt beliefs, biases and prejudices. A response is information based; born from both the conscious and unconscious, it is more measured, assesses possible risk and weighs up the long term effects. As a whole, we’re out of practice here.

“True listening requires a setting aside of oneself”
M Scott Peck

How to have better conversations

1. Remember your preconceptions are your own
We make huge decisions based on what we already believe. Memories and perceptions as we know them are hugely warped but influence us on a daily basis and add bias to our interactions.

2. Vulnerability and risk-taking invite growth
Don’t shy away from sharing your opinion and asking questions. Any conversation can be one that challenges the status quo or changes the norm.

3. Complaining is viral misery
Sound consultant Julian Treasure denotes the seven deadly sins of speaking in his TED talk ‘How to talk so people will listen’ which include (but are not limited to) gossip and judging. There is room for expressing our emotions, of course, but not at the expense of others without a voice.

4. Leave dogmatism at the door
In her talk ‘How to have a better conversation’, Celeste Headlee warns us away from pontification. Remember, “Everyone that you will ever meet knows something that you don’t”, (Bill Nye).

5. Questioning technique
Closed-ended questions don’t leave room for expression, emotion, or conversational flexibility/agility. Letting the other person think about their answer will provide a much more interesting and authentic response.

6. Treat others as they would like to be treated
Overarchingly this means with honesty, authenticity and integrity, but when we get into the details, think about the person behind the conversation; are they softly spoken? Are they making eye-contact? Do they take a while to think? Someone who speaks quickly and abruptly may find it hard to listen to an individual who takes 10 minutes to get to the point. It’s about adapting your style to have better conversations whilst still being true to who you are.

7. Silence is valuable
Pausing and contemplating fosters self-reflection and should not have to be uncomfortable or be perceived in weakness in conversation. We pack our time so full – those spare five minutes are often used to ‘get ahead’ – that there is rarely time to simply ponder.

If we want our speech and our listening to be powerful, we must first realise that at the moment, it really isn’t. In this world that we live in, where most conversations hold the potential to devolve into a war of moral high ground, where we can exercise avoidance to the point of immature pretention more freely than ever before, we have forgotten how to have a competent conversation, especially with those people who we feel are our opposites. We are more polarised than we have ever been, but the valley between those extremes holds such value – if only we would be courageous and comfortable being vulnerable enough to debate it.

“What would the world be like if we were speaking powerfully to people who were listening consciously?”
Julian Treasure

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