Engaged Listening and Inquiry
by Jamie S. Walters

To become a better listener, most basic resources suggest that we parrot, paraphrase and nod or use phrases such as, "I hear what you’re saying." While these can be worthwhile tools to have in your listening toolbox, doing these actions – paraphrasing or parroting back what someone has said, for instance – don’t guarantee you are actually listening. The reality could be quite the opposite. What skills increase your chances for more exceptional interactions, among other benefits?

True listening requires both internal and external work on the part of the listener. To be truly engaged in listening, we have to put ourselves in a receptive space rather than an active or action-oriented space. We can combine this receptivity with inquiry, or other "tools" for skillful listening, to both significantly enhance the quality of our interactions and raise the level of our awareness and understanding.

In an example of what we might call "half-baked" listening, a person might be doing the actions suggested for active listening. They might be leaning forward, nodding to affirm that they’re listening, saying things like, "I hear what you’re saying" or repeating back what someone has said. And yet, even while doing these things, they might not be listening at all. Rather, they may just be waiting for their turn to speak. While nodding, or after parroting back, they might be forming judgments about something the other person has said, or they might be formulating the next step in their argument to convince someone to agree with their position. This type of listening is only partial listening, somewhat like having a full banquet table that has no more space for receiving anything new. Compared with the ideal, this person wouldn’t really be listening at all, but simply acting as if they were.

When someone is truly engaged in listening, though, they’ll combine receptive practices so that they’re able to receive what someone else is saying. Such receptivity is an internal or intrapersonal practice – it’s something we allow space for.

How do we "empty out" or create space for genuinely receiving another person’s contributions to the conversation? By learning to set aside our judgments, assumptions and reactions that arise frequently as others speak; and by inquiring – asking questions – so that we gain information that may change our perspective or increase our understanding.

To Receive

To create a space for being receptive to what another person is saying – an integral aspect of engaged or genuine listening – you have to quiet your mind while the other person is speaking. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not, and that’s why skillful listening is a rare pleasure to behold.

Usually, our minds are chattering away, judging what other people say, sizing it up, analyzing it, and connecting it with our assumptions. Or we might just react to it immediately, because it pushes up against some of our beliefs or dearly held assumptions. All of these are barriers to listening – those dishes that clutter up that banquet table so that there is no room to accommodate new things.

To be one of those skilled listeners that people adore and admire – and that seem to have fewer miscommunications and a greater sense of understanding and interpersonal facility than the average person – work to quiet your mind of all this chatter, judgment and critique, so that you can be receptive to the things others are saying to you. Being truly receptive takes practice, but simply noticing is a great first step on the journey toward more skillful listening.

To Inquire

Asking questions is another excellent approach for moving beyond our preconceptions of what someone else is or should be saying, or is or should be perceiving things. Two of my favorite questions that might be useful to you in creating a new pattern of interaction with others – particularly in a more heated or potentially controversial discussion – include:

What is your intention for saying that?

This question is great for defusing and getting at the true intention of hurtful, divisive, aggressive or hostile comments, particularly the types of comments that one might hear (or use) when a conversation becomes heated or one or more participants becomes defensive or reactionary. Such aggressive (or passive aggressive) comments are intended to intimidate by causing a reaction instead of a response from others, and thus driving others into a reaction mode of defending instead of engaging in mutually respectful – and productive – communication. By asking "what is your intention for saying that," instead of reacting to the comment defensively or aggressively, you may break the more negative pattern of the conversation and allow for a more genuine, mutually beneficial exchange.

One caveat: Be prepared for some level of defensiveness in return, because you've disrupted someone's agenda by asking this question. For example, the person might respond, "What do you mean by that?" or even respond with more aggressive statements. In such a case, you might simply repeat your question by turning it into a statement such as, "Well, I can't help but hearing your statement as divisive or hostile, so I'm really wanting to understand what prompted you to say what you did."

What do you mean, specifically, when you say (label or jargon word)?

This question starts to encourage more meaningful conversation by discouraging the use of labels, names, jargon, etc. that can get in the way of productive, respectful communication. There is a certain category of words that are used as barriers, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously. Examples of unproductive and stereotypical labels that erect barriers and shut down opportunities for a meaningful, respectful exchange include: Management, Them, White People, Blacks, Latinas, The Homeless, Liberals, Conservatives, Corporate ... and the list goes on, and on, and on.

When we inquire, we do so with the positive intention of being respectful of another, learning more, increasing our understanding, and being open to having our minds changed by what we learn. We can also choose to be conscious of our own use of such "barricade terminology" and select more engaging language. This isn't a matter of being politically correct, but rather choosing to be specific instead of aggressively vague.

By practicing these two skill areas for engaged listening, you’ll notice a marked improvement in your interactions and the results that stem from them. Ready to become more effective in these areas? You’ll find links to specific receptivity and inquiry skill-building articles and tipsheets below.

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the unique needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully. The most effective approaches are those that have been tailored to your unique needs and organizational culture, so don't hesitate to engage the assistance of an adviser whose perspective you trust and value. Have questions? Visit Ivy Sea or give us a call to learn how we can help you discover how to make the most of your culture, communication, talents, services, infrastructure and systems to take you to greater levels of mastery and success as an individual, group or organization.


Jamie S. Walters is founder and chief vision & strategy officer at Ivy Sea, Inc., and publisher and editor-in-chief for Ivy Sea Online, recognized by Inc.com, Harvard Business School, The CEO Refresher and other business portals as one of the best sites on the internet for entrepreneurs, small-business owners and organizational leaders. Jamie is also the author of the new handbook for conscious, human-scale enterprise: Big Vision, Small Business: 4 Keys to Success Without Growing Big (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco). E-mail Jamie directly at jwalters@ivysea.com .

This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission. Ivy Sea Online is an outstanding source of insightful and inspiring articles on leadership and communications - "visionary resources for conscious enterprise and inspired livelihood." (ed.)

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