Listeners Blog

Tag Archives: Assumptions and Advice


How meetings go bad when no one is listening

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A properly planned and executed meeting can be an excellent way to communicate information and share ideas. But many employees dread them as unproductive time sinks — and they might be right. Research shows that half of the hours spent in the 11 million business meetings that happen every day in the United States is actually wasted on off-topic discussions. One of the most common time-wasters are people who won’t listen without making assumptions about what the speaker is saying, and insist on interrupting and offering advice without fully understanding what the speaker needs. If an individual with poor listening skills is allowed to hijack a discussion, the result can be a ripple effect of negativity on an entire team.

Imagine that, in the weekly meeting, a member of a team voiced concern that her current project seemed to have hit a wall. Before she could finish describing the problem, however, another member jumped in with a lengthy monologue about how he had solved similar problems in the past and just had to have the last word — all related to his experience, not to the project at hand.

The junior member soon stopped trying to talk, frustrated and without a resolution. Meanwhile, the rest of the group had turned their attention to emails, texts and other activities, because they knew that once this person had the floor, there was no hope of arriving at any useful decision.

The first step to avoiding this worst-case scenario is to start the meeting with all electronic devices stacked on the table, to be touched only to research a point relevant to the discussion. That will keep everyone invested in listening to everyone else and offering relevant input.

In our example, the manager should bring the conversation back to the junior member by asking how the group could help her, including the senior manager, who has already offered his ideas. Anyone running a meeting has the authority of the chair to provide a platform to anyone who might feel they are not being heard. When everyone can both express themselves and truly listen, any meeting can become more productive.



A piece of advice: keep it to yourself

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We’ve mentioned several times here that giving advice is not the same as truly listening. What’s so wrong about trying to help people solve their problems? Let us count the ways that giving advice interferes with listening.

First of all, while you are busy thinking up a solution, you stop hearing the rest of the story. You may think you know what is troubling someone based on a few minutes of conversation, but few people launch into the real issue right away. They tend to talk around what’s really going on at first. Supportive listeners give speakers the time and space to uncover their true concerns by putting them into words.

Second, any advice can only come from your own experience. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Just because you think you know what you would do or feel or think about a situation doesn’t mean that would work for anyone else. It’s up to each of us to determine what is right for ourselves, and supportive listeners can be there while we search for our personal truth.

Third, if your advice is rejected, emotion is injected into the conversation. You can feel hurt, since you were only trying to help, after all. The speaker can feel angry, because you obviously didn’t understand what they were really trying to say, or guilty, because they know they won’t – or can’t — take your well-meaning directions. Advice can as often as not lead to arguments, or worse, a total end to talking about anything. Supportive listeners keep the conversation going by keeping their own emotions out of the equation, letting speakers explore their own feelings freely.

The temptation to fix other people’s problems is powerful. Resisting it can be powerfully rewarding, for both the speaker and the listener.



Listening, not directing

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When you want to talk about important issues, you aren’t necessarily looking for advice. But how many times have you heard someone else’s opinion on what you should do with your life — even when that doesn’t help sort out your deeper ideas and emotions?

Telling people what to do is easy; truly listening to someone in search of a personal truth is hard work. It requires the listener to let go of the natural impulse to solve problems. We are doing something vitally important by just being here; there’s no need to direct someone else’s life-movie.

Sometimes casual listeners are not even aware they have stepped into the role of director. But saying things to make you “feel better” about painful issues or providing their “perspective” on your situation actually moves the conversation away from your intensely personal exploration. Directive listening derails the process of understanding; supportive listening clears the tracks to personal enlightenment.

It takes time, space and conversational support for anyone to feel that he or she has truly been heard. Listeners need to know when someone is looking for advice and when what that person really needs is someone to relate to in the present, in a non-judgmental way. Talking to someone who listens with caring and clarity of vision puts you back in the director’s chair in your own life.