Are you listening to me?
As the only beings on the planet blessed with the power of speech, we often take for granted how complicated the communication process can actually be. Understanding how we communicate with one another and the needs involved can help us become more effective as professionals, both when speaking and when listening.
To help illustrate the importance of listening in effective communication, allow me to share one of my clients’ recent experiences with you.
As the newly-appointed project manager of an international consulting company, Pavla was offered the chance to participate in the company’s leadership development training program. She returned from the two-day seminar motivated, filled with enthusiasm and ready to apply her newly-acquired communication skills.
One of the primary challenges Pavla had been facing prior to the seminar was her sometimes difficult relationship with her boss. As the only female manager in the production department, she often felt that her boss wasn’t listening to her. The result was a growing sense of frustration and futility when attempting to communicate with him. There was certainly a need for learning in the situation.
When I asked Pavla which aspects of the program had been most beneficial, her answer was that she “finally understood that listening is an active process which involves a sender and a receiver”. She shared her discovery that both parties are responsible for their role in the process. In other words, it is the responsibility of the sender to make sure that the receiver hears and understands the message and the responsibility of the receiver to let the sender know that he/she has received and understood the message. Pavla also came to the realization that the more involved and engaged both parties are in the process of communicating, the better the results.
During the communication process, the sender faces the challenge of appropriately involving the receiver in order to ensure that the message is correctly received and understood. This puts the onus on the receiver to give appropriate feedback on how the message has been heard and understood.
What Pavla realized is that listening can be difficult when the speaker is perceived as boring or when the advice or information is unsolicited. Indeed many of us simply tune out in situations in which we have no control over the incoming information, and no way of stopping the conversation. On the other hand, we are generally willing to listen to someone we find likeable, interesting or when we’re seeking specific information.
To my surprise, a few minutes into the conversation, Pavla blurted out, “But that’s not it. The main benefit of the training was realizing that the best way to get someone to listen to me is to be able meet one of his/her four core needs”.
Although the leadership development program Pavla attended was mainly devoted to effective communication, listening skills and feedback, it also covered the elements that shape the direction of our life, such as our goals, our values, our behaviors and needs.
The Four Core Needs
The first of these four core needs is Certainty
, which is connected to our need for comfort. One of the easiest ways to make people feel comfortable when we speak to them is to synchronize our communication style with theirs by matching and mirroring (using the same body language, tone of voice etc.), or to speak about something they know and/or like. Certainty is also related to our desire for control. One question remains however: how much certainty do we need in order to feel secure about who we are and what we do? That raises an additional question: how much uncertainty do we need to learn and grow? Too much certainty and we run the risk of losing interest in the person or topic we are dealing with, too little certainty and we can face a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.
The second need is Variety
, which is related to our desire for novelty and change. We can satisfy this need by sometimes behaving in an unexpected way, by surprising someone or by putting forward new ideas. In today’s fast-moving, ever-changing world, the quality of our life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty we can tolerate in our lives. It is in the realm of uncertainty that our passion and brilliance is found. Yet too much unpredictability can create a high level of stress and insecurity. While some people like their work to be structured and predictable, many, especially the younger generation, enjoy what some might consider more challenging and diverse activities.
The third need is Significance
, or the desire to feel that we are unique, appreciated and valued.
Many times over the years my Czech clients have told me that they feel most respected when people listen to them and take their opinions into account. With that in mind I asked Pavla what need she was trying to fulfill by expecting her boss to listen to her. She smiled and admitted that when she heard the definition of someone with a strong significance need, she realized that her expectations came from her own personal need to feel appreciated and respected by her boss.
Pavla’s new training, and the discoveries it led her to, helped her view communication with her boss from a broader perspective. This empowered her to adapt her style and put more of her focus and energy into achieving her primary goal rather than simply fighting to have her personal need for significance met.
The final core need is the combined concept of Connection & Relatedness
. For many Czechs this need is paramount. Above all, anyone who wishes to communicate effectively with Czechs would be well advised to find a genuine way to make them feel good about themselves.
Years of experience has taught me that many Czechs prefer a sincere exchange between sender and receiver. Their deep desire to feel appreciated and supported is often missed by those who do not have the need for connection as their main expectation.
We are all guilty of assuming that people process information in the same way we do, which is the reason we tend to communicate on the basis of our own needs. If we favor order and structure in our own life, we will tend to communicate in a structured manner irrespective of the other person’s expectations. In contrast, if we’re in need of change and variety we’ll likely offer a more jumbled or creative perspective on an issue.
What Pavla discovered during the leadership seminar was that the key to understanding her boss’s needs lay in the way in which he himself communicated with her and those around him. Until recently, she had dismissed this information as irrelevant.
To develop her listening skills, Pavla acknowledged that she had to change her approach to communication and start with a clear objective in mind. In her relationship with her boss, she needed to change her focus from, “I cannot work with this guy because he never listens to me” to, “What is my boss’s primary need, and how can I meet his communication needs in order to make him more receptive and open to what I have to say?”
Our ability to listen depends on what we are listening for or, put another way, why we make the effort to listen to someone. It’s certainly worth asking ourselves what we are expecting to get out of the interaction. Which of the needs (Certainty, Variety, Significance and Connection) are we trying to meet when we speak, when we need someone to listen to us and when we listen?
Next time you find yourself in a boring but unavoidable listening situation, I suggest that you make try to identify which one of your core needs you are trying to meet. Then take things a step further by making the effort to identify the needs of the speaker. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to find enjoyment and value in the learning experience.