“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Stephen R. Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

Whether we are interacting with family members, clients or members of our work teams, our own assumptions about their intentions and meaning can be one of the greatest impediments to understanding and agreement. In his classic book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, the late Stephen R. Covey describes an approach for helping us to overcome our assumptions and truly understand another person’s point of view. More about the approach in a moment.

The assumption trap

You may have experienced this situation: you’re in a team meeting trying to come to an agreement on a basic course of action when the decision making process stalls. Two people, or possibly two “factions”, just cannot see eye-to-eye. Frustrations mount, voices are raised and, in the ensuing chaos, no one appears to be listening. Then it occurs to you: “Are they understanding the other side’s position on this?” In some cases, you may find yourself wondering if they aren’t really saying much the same thing. It can be rather funny but it can be frightening too. As Stephen Covey noted, in our haste to respond with our own ideas, we often substitute our own assumptions for the true understanding that might be gained from a few minutes of listening. It just seems so much easier! But, in the long term, where there is no true understanding of a person’s ideas, feelings and intentions, there can be no true consensus and no true buy-in. In short, this is the antithesis of team building.

Evading the assumption trap with empathetic listening

Empathetic listening is an effective antidote for the poison of unwarranted assumptions that might be at the root of misunderstanding. Empathetic listening is about trying to understand the true meaning of what a person is communicating, both thoughts and feelings. Remember that empathetic listening in no way implies that you must agree with the other person. You are, however, acknowledging that their opinions and feelings are real and valid for them at this time. This creates a safe environment for them to express themselves honestly and gives you the opportunity to really understand where they’re coming from.

Team building activities to develop listening skills

Here are some team building activities that will help develop listening empathetic listening skills. These activities require people to work in pairs through a series of escalating good listening behaviours:

  1. First, ask people to work in pairs and take turns telling each other a 1-2 minute short story about something that happened to them; a “best ever” vacation is usually a safe place to start. Throughout the story, the listener must ask open-ended questions in order to keep the story flowing and to get more detail and meaning. Repeat with the second partner.
  2. Switch up the pairs and ask people to tell new stories (although the same story could also work) this time having the listener paraphrase or summarize the story periodically in his or her own words to check that they have gotten the message.
  3. As a variation of the above, have listeners try to identify the emotional messages embedded in the story (e.g., you sound very excited about that!)
  4. When people are more comfortable, introduce slightly controversial topics where there is potential for disagreement. Have people practise the above listening skills and acknowledge the person’s opinions without trying to win them over to the other side. The goal is just to show understanding.
  5. You can play with these exercises by combining them into a single team building activity. A variation that we use involves having one person in each pair tell their story for 2-3 minutes, while the other does his or her best NOT to listen. This is chaotic but fun. People actually experience, in a light-hearted way, the emotional pain of not being understood. They identify poor and good listening behaviours and get to try it over the “right way”. Debrief and summarize what listening behaviours worked best to make the storyteller feel that the listener was engaged and got the full meaning of facts and feelings. You should get suggestions such as: maintaining eye contact; nodding; reflecting the appropriate emotion by smiling, laughing or frowning; asking relevant questions (open and closed); paraphrasing periodically; and summarizing.

The “Seek first to understand” Rule

Stephen Covey suggests a powerful tool for promoting mutual understanding: the “seek first to understand” method. It involves invoking a basic rule of communication: you cannot make your point until you have shown that you thoroughly understand the point of the other person. Use this procedure in a facilitated meeting if you feel the listening skills are not up to scratch, or if the discussion starts going in circles because people are not listening to one another. You can also use this technique at any time if there are two individuals arguing endlessly over a point.

  1. Stop the discussion and point out the need to listen to one another in order to move on.
  2. Introduce the tool and invoke the rule. Ask two conflicting members to volunteer to help the group move toward resolution of the issues. Emphasize that they will be helping the entire group move forward. Write on a flip chart “Seek First to Understand Rule: You cannot make your point until you restate the point of the other person to his or her satisfaction.”
  3. Carry out the discussion. Have member “A” start to make her point. If member “B” begins to interrupt, remind him of the rule and have the first person finish. Then have the member B state the first member’s point. Ask member A if she is satisfied that member B got the point, including any feelings that were associated with it. If she’s not satisfied, member B tries again. Once member A is satisfied, member B states his point and the whole process is repeated. After both members are satisfied that their points have been made, ask if they are feeling any differently than when they began, and if they’d be willing to share their feelings.
  4. Proceed with your original agenda.

Use simple team building exercises to build your team’s “listening skill set” and then practice those skills with Covey’s “seek first to understand” tool. You should find that misunderstandings will be dealt with more quickly and your level of team buy-in and morale will increase.

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