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December 14, 2012

Listening Unconditionally: An Improvised Case Study

December 14, 2012

not listeningI enjoy helping people. That's why I don't listen to them...

As a marketing professional, there's a balance I have to keep when it comes to listening. I've realized the majority of what I do comes from listening. I spend a lot of my job listening. But people pay me money to provide them with ideas that will drive results. Listening at work always carries ulterior motives. I'm listening so that I can turn what I've heard into something tangible (content outlines, strategies, blogs, customer personas, etc.).

Whether I'm interviewing a client about their ongoing content strategy, or I'm talking to their customers about why they love my client, I have to be pretty precise in choosing when I'm intentional with lending them my ear.

It got me wondering: when was the last time I listened unconditionally? That is: I'm your sounding board. You talk. I listen. That's it.

Am I a good listener? One who brings nothing to the table but time and undivided attention? Or am I one of those listeners who feels the urge to help drive conversations? If I am, does that make me a poor listener?

So I conducted a little makeshift experiment last week…

I wanted to see how I would react in a situation where I wouldn't do anything but listen.

I lead and mentor a small group of high school guys weekly. I've been doing it for going-on six years now. Guys come and go from the group, obviously with all the commitments high school kids have. And then they graduate, but this year's group has been pretty consistent in their attendance. The result of their consistency has led to pretty authentic conversations this semester. So I wanted to challenge them to have a conversation about a number of topics that I'd present. Their job was to drive the conversations around the topics I'd propose. My job was simply to listen to them - not offer advice or my own take on subjects unless they specifically asked me to share. I would help drive the conversation by simply asking relevant questions. But that's all I could do.

The day we met, I told some of the dudes ahead of time that I was going to do something different and that they should be prepared to have some intentional conversations.

When we got there, I laid just a few ground rules:

  1. Be respectful. No matter what someone else's views are.
  2. No "Sunday School" answers (example: if you say you're religious and I if I ask you, "why do you believe what you believe?" your answer cannot simply be "because I think it's true"…I want you to think through your ideas!)

I had two goals.

Goal #1

My main goal was to see if I could refrain from injecting my perspective into conversation between things I feel are important with the people I care about - unless they directly asked me for my opinions (that's key). I wanted to listen unconditionally. I didn't want the attention I paid the conversation to be dependent on whether I had something to add or not. So I'd drive conversation by asking questions only - no opinions unless I was asked for one.

Goal #2

My second goal was to help the students understand that they're capable of forming their own thoughts and beliefs. And that challenging each other in those beliefs is a good thing.

The Conversation:

In the course of an hour and a half, I probably asked 6 questions. The guys did a fantastic job of owning the conversation (who know high school boys had so much to say?). Some key ideas that I heard them say included:

"I believe what I believe because I want to believe in something hopeful. There's too much darkness in this world. I'd rather be a part of something positive."


"I don't know what my purpose is because I don't know what I'm good at. I just know that I enjoy giving people hope. So maybe that's my purpose."

I asked them if there was one thing they wished they believed but just can't bring themselves to do it, what would that be? Someone said, "I wish I believed that God was always there." Another guy said "I wish I believed that materialism didn't overwhelm my life." Powerful stuff for teenagers in 2012!

The Results:

Not once did someone ask me what I thought about something - which meant I was pretty silent the whole time.

I realized within 5 minutes that it'd been a LONG time since I just sat and listened to someone unconditionally. It was torturous to sit in that room and withstand the temptation to give these younger students my insight to what they were saying. I kept my word though. I didn't provide my tidbits of experience and perspective to the students, but it was driving me crazy.

Like I said in the beginning - I enjoy helping people. Most times, I feel I'm helping people if I'm giving them my thoughts on something. Sometimes that's not even close to true.

Not that providing someone with perspective means I'm a poor listener. It just means that sometimes, it might not be what people want or need from me. And it often is what I want to do in the midst of conversation. To sit and just listen to these kids was both extremely difficult and refreshing at the same time.

I found that I listen to people conditionally most times. I'll listen to what you're saying as long as I feel like I should add something. A lot of times, I feel the urge to provide you with my opinions - even without you asking for them. This little experiment helped me see that listening to someone - regardless of how I feel about their opinions, or how I might be able to help them, or that I know that my experience would be valuable to them - is challenging for me.

How often do you listen to someone unconditionally? Is that easy or difficult for you?

**photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yamagatacamille/

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