Turning Off…

Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NASB)

Turning Off the Conversation in Your Head

We’ve all listened and asked questions since we were toddlers. It’s just that most of us have never approached listening and asking as disciplines, to be systematically learned, practiced and refined. There are lots of listening techniques you can to communicate to another person that you are paying attention—leaning forward, having an open posture, making eye contact. But listening isn’t an outward posture we take on—it’s what’s going on inside our heads that counts. If you learn to think like a coach, the techniques will come naturally to you.

Here’s a fun little exercise. Get out a pen and paper, or sit down at your computer keyboard. Next, pick a favorite song that you know pretty well. Now, here’s the challenge: Sing the song out loud, and while you are singing, simultaneously write or type out the words to the pledge of allegiance. I’ll give you a couple minutes.

How’d it go? I always get stuck after a few lines, or I start writing random words from the song into the pledge of allegiance. Even thought the lines of the pledge are burned into my brain from saying them over and over in grade school, I can still completely forget what they are while I’m saying something else. There are some things human beings can and can’t multitask at. We can dance and sing at the same time, or use our legs to walk while we talk, or even cook a meal while we are adding up the cost of a home improvement project in our heads. But it’s tough for our brains to do two different things with words at the same time.

This is the fundamental challenge to listening well. The other person is talking (that’s one thing involving words), and meanwhile we have a second, hidden monologue going where we’re evaluating and responding to what is said inside our heads (which makes two things). Our brains can’t do both at once, so we slip in and out between the conversation with the other person and the conversation in our heads. Every time we switch gears we lose a few words, or a sentence, or a whole paragraph. At its worst, this leaves us nodding and saying, “uh-huh” without a very clear idea of what the other person is talking about.

Most of us do better than that, at least most of the time. But let me give you a real challenge: can you carry on a half hour conversation with someone without losing a single word? (Try it – it’s a lot harder than it sounds!) Setting a high standard can greatly increase the impact you have when you’re working with others. One of my personal commitments to my coaching clients is that when I am in a coaching appointment, I’m going to be all there. For that hour, that individual is the only person in the world. All my attention is focused within the appointment. One of the biggest keys to listening well is simply making a serious, personal commitment to be all there with the person you’re talking to. Will you make the commitment to move your listening from good to great?

Common Distractions

(or, what starts the conversation inside your head)

  • I see your problem, and I’m figuring out how to solve it while I’m listening
  • I’m already composing my reply (or my next question) while you are still talking
  • I was in a conflict today and I can’t get it out of my mind
  • I really want to get back to work (or whatever I was doing before we started talking)
  • “Not that issue again!” 
  • I’m frustrated personally by something in the conversation, and I start thinking about my emotions instead of what I’m hearing
  • What you said reminded me of something I need to do