Listening creates speaking and speaking creates listening. Transformed communication is when you pay heed to the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. Speaking and listening influence each other throughout any conversation or presentation. Any shift in one creates a shift in the other. As we seek to connect with our audience — and to maintain that connection — being sensitive to this natural dynamic is essential.
What impedes this flow are “obstacles to listening.” . For successful communication to take place in the time and space allocated for it, we should identify and release any obstacles to listening so that they don’t affect the telling. Let’s explore how first we identify obstacles to listening and then how we release those obstacles.
Categories of Obstacles to Listening
As a guideline to approach the listening environment in your organization, consider the following five categories.
External obstacles. Hearing is one component of listening. As the sound and tone of the words enter the body, they cause a wide range of effects. The quality of the sound of a voice can cause feelings in the body. Some voices are musical and soothing, whereas others are harsh and unsettling. Other hearing obstacles include noises and other sounds, such as traffic, barking dogs, jackhammers, music or whirring air conditioners.
How does what you are seeing affect your ability to listen? If the storyteller looks sad, does that increase the level of attention you bring to his or her speaking? Does it decrease it? What judgments arise from seeing? How does the smell in the room affect your ability to listen?
Physical obstacles. These most often have to do with the body’s physical needs: hunger, needing to go to the bathroom, tiredness, physical discomfort or pain, sexual arousal, clothing that’s too tight or uncomfortable, rashes, feeling sick or even having a bad hair day!
Internal obstacles. Internal obstacles include thoughts, memories, emotions and feelings. You can have a variety of feelings in an hour, even within a minute, especially if you are upset or sad, or feel extreme happiness or joy. These can be obstacles to listening. Some of these obstacles are invisible to others and often to ourselves.
Psychological obstacles. Judgments of others and ourselves make it difficult to listen and be creative. “I am not good enough.” “He is better than I am.” “She doesn’t know how to tell a story.” Opinions or strong beliefs of agreement or disagreement can interfere if the listener likes or dislikes what the storyteller is saying. Opinions about religion, politics or other topics may be obstacles to listening.
Relational obstacles. The relationships we have with people often shape the way we listen to them. At work, there is a hierarchy, and that’s a natural and important structure. Bringing awareness to how the hierarchy affects our listening is crucial so that we don’t let it influence open listening. This is not to dismiss or undermine necessary power structures but simply to be aware of how our ideas about them affect what we hear. Otherwise, we may not contribute all that we can, or conversely, we may not allow our leaders or subordinates to contribute their best.
When you practice identifying obstacles to listening, you will notice that many of your obstacles have to do with past experiences and memories. One of the reasons we do not suppress the obstacles but just make note of them and let them be is that some of them can be material for our stories. Therefore, identifying obstacles to listening not only paves the way to releasing obstacles but also can potentially lead to identifying an experience or memory that could become a story. So pay attention to your obstacles because your next great story might be hiding in plain sight.
Release Obstacles to Listening
Releasing the obstacles lets your colleagues know that if you seem distracted or annoyed, for example, it’s because of your own preoccupations that have nothing to do with them. This is important if you’re in a leadership role because people are watching your responses and often taking them personally. With this practice, you enhance focus on the meeting at hand, enabling a purer strain of attention than one fettered by miscellaneous concerns and issues.
Releasing the obstacles to listening may be used as a general communication protocol before any meeting or conversation, because it provides a quick way to open up communication and create connection, which in turn heightens attention to the matters at hand. However, it is important to understand the roots of this practice. It derives from a methodology called preparing a “dedicated time and space” for listening and storytelling.
Guidelines for Creating a Dedicated Time and Space
What follows are guidelines for how to define a dedicated time and space for listening and storytelling, whether they happen in person or online.
1. Why a meeting? Why now? Just as you must consider why you’re choosing to tell a specific story to another person or group of people, you must be able to answer why you’re calling a meeting (as opposed to using other means of communication) and why at this particular time.
2. Create a dedicated time and space. Your priority now is to create a space for listening. Remember that listening begins with you. So think of the environment you need in order to listen yourself, and then think of who the listeners in the meeting will be. Make sure that the space will remain private throughout the length of the meeting. Is the room big enough to accommodate everyone? What is the noise level? Has the room been booked for an adequate amount of time? Is there enough light?
3. Manage the time. Let people know that this meeting is going to be timed, and designate a dedicated timekeeper whose role is to make sure that everyone gets the same amount of time to speak, or alternatively, you can dedicate the time proportionally based on the emphasis of the meeting. If storytellers know that their story will reliably end after a certain number of minutes, they will be able to choose which elements of the story are the most important for them to communicate.
4. Identify and release obstacles to listening, and set an intention. When you start the meeting, go around the room and ask people to say what their obstacles to listening are in the moment. Then release the obstacles to listening. For example, if there’s a construction crew outside with a jackhammer, close all windows or find another room to work from. Identifying and releasing the obstacles is not meant as suppression or rejection; it’s about acknowledging and putting things aside so that everyone can get the most out of the meeting experience. Finally, set an intention. Setting an intention calls you into a certain way of being, which is not the habitual way you may have of approaching a meeting. For instance, an intention may be one word or one sentence such as “Focus” or “My intention is to listen constructively to what is said in this meeting.” By stating this intention, you are indicating to everyone in the group what kind of listener you’re going to be for each one of them.
5. Designate dedicated listeners. The role of the designated listener is to listen openly, without judgment. She is also listening for the specificity of what’s being said. By designating someone as the dedicated listener, you know that there is someone whose listening you can count on to actively support and shape what you and others are going to say.
6. Instruct participants to tell what happened. Always ask What happened? no matter what the content of your communications. It will transform the way your meetings sound, and affect their outcomes because it will force you to identify and take out what is unnecessary — that is, your opinions, assumptions, interpretations and feelings about a situation. It’s an editing tool for you to make your point more quickly and in a more straightforward way.
7. Record and share. Make sure what is said is recorded, whether through precise note-taking or through an electronic device. Designate someone to take notes and to share those notes with everyone.