Have you ever been with a colleague and debriefed a meeting you both attended only to discover that you heard entirely different things or made entirely different meaning from the conversations that took place during the meeting? Why is that? Maybe it’s not about whether you were listening, but how you were listening.

In the work we do around Story, we focus not only on storytelling as a powerful leadership tool, but story listening as an equally powerful skill.  Listening to the messages being offered by your people, colleagues, customers and suppliers can uncover important information that is not available to you from the data.

Here are 4 key ways to listen to what’s being said to you in meetings:

1.     Listening to summarise:

This is the default for many of us.  It’s when we try and reduce the blah blah blah down to a short rendition of what was being said to us.  When you’re listening to summarise, the object is to be able to play back the whole message in three sentences.

2.     Listening for Essence:

Here your task is to listen for what the conversation, or story is fundamentally about.  Usually, the examples or data given are designed to illustrate something; they’re designed to make a point.  When you’re listening for Essence you’re trying to distil the core message being offered.

3.     Listening for Image:

Forget the narrative for a moment; what is the single image you’re left with from the story? This will often be the thing that anchors your memory of the conversation at a later date, so it’s an important thing to listen for if you need to remember or recount the message to someone else.

4.     Listening for the Unsaid:

Listening this way is more subtle, and more intuitive, but it just might be the most important way to “hear” the message. Sometimes it’s what the storyteller feels unable to say, but wants you to understand that is the most important part of the communication.

The really tricky bit

Listening for any one of the above is manageable for most of us, but listening for all four at once requires a whole new level of attention.  And this might be where your first challenge lies.  Have you ever been guilty of using the time someone is speaking to think about what you’ll say when they finally shut up? Deep listening requires you to stay present with what’s being said.  Listening on four levels is hard enough, but trying to do it when you’re not really listening is impossible.

Over to you

Next time you’re in a meeting and someone is recounting a situation or outlining a proposal try shifting your focus when you’re listening.  See if you can do more than recount it later in a summarised form. Ask yourself what the enduring moment or image from the story is that you’ll hold onto. See if you can listen deeply in order to understand what the story is about at its core and what’s not being said but wants to be said. 

The good news is that meetings will seem to go quicker and real communication might actually take place during them.  Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

Cameron Houston, Principal, Batley Evans & Co.

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