This week, a new track by Manic Street Preachers has burrowed into my brain like a musical earwig that obstinately refuses to be shushed.
Titled ‘Orwellian’, one line has played on repeat in the concert hall of my exasperated head:
Words wage war, meanings being missed, I’ll walk you through the apocalypse.
You’ve got to admire the genius of a good lyricist for speaking the truth so cleanly. I wonder where these words take you?
On a long drive home, they got me thinking about conversational intelligence…
In the next few blogs, I’d like to share some thoughts and practical tips with you on developing the muscle of conversational intelligence.
We’ll explore ways to move from being stuck in debate to engaging in high quality dialogue. We’ll look at some simple practices that can make all the difference, such as the interplay between listening and voicing, respect and suspension, and balancing advocacy and inquiry.
There is more than one way of talking and thinking together, and more than one way to unlock the kind of generative conversations that change the possibilities for moving forward together!
Listening to understand
Living from an orientation of listening to understand has never been more important, nor, it seems, more undervalued.
Yet it’s a critical ingredient to creating the atmosphere in which good thinking can take place.
Creating change requires changing conversations. But how can we hope to do this without bringing conversational intelligence to how we talk and think together?
How different would the conversations taking place right now within diverse communities around the world, in our organisations and teams, and with our friends and family be if every one of us were more skilful at listening to understand?
This is hard. Really hard. It’s a practice. A discipline. A muscle that only develops with regular, intentional use. But without it, as the lyrics go, we create the apocalypse.
Listening – the practice of giving attention to others and what they mean
In the war of words, giving attention to meaning may mean the difference between a total breakdown in communication or the emergence of a way forward together.
Here are three ways to become even better at listening for meaning.
Observe yourself in conversation. Where is your awareness? With your conversation partner, with you, or perhaps with the dynamic between you? How absorbed are you with your own thoughts and feelings? Have you been practicing your response while the other person is still speaking?
Be honest about your mental orientation in this moment. Ask yourself, ‘Right now, am I more committed to seeking to understand, or to be understood?’
Notice your physical state. Are you tensed or relaxed? As the sociologist Amy Cuddy’s now widely known work on posture shows, our body language may tell our brain what to think, influencing our thoughts. What might your body language be telegraphing to others?
Shift your focus. While in this state of awareness, play with shifting your attention to the other parties in the dialogue.
Ask yourself, ‘what did I hear this person say?’ and ‘Why might that person have this viewpoint?’. Practice being curious about what may have influenced their view on the issue.
What questions might you now wish to ask them?
When you next speak, see if you can repeat back to someone what they think and feel about something to their satisfaction before you go on to share or state your view.
Listen for meaning in the group. Take up the role of a curious bystander. Research shows that showing genuine empathy creates the conditions in which people may be more willing to adjust their perspective.
What does the dynamic in this conversation feel like? How would you describe the qualities of the group relationship in this moment? What connections or themes are emerging? Which voices are dominating? Which voices are not being heard? What does your intuition tell you about this situation? Is there something beyond the words that is trying to be articulated?
But what about what I want to say?
Listening like this does not mean sacrificing the authenticity and strength of our own voice in the matter. It does improve our thinking so that when we do speak, we speak from a more conversationally intelligent place and are contributing towards a more generative outcome.
In my next blog we’ll look at voicing – the practice of being authentic – and the interplay with respect.
But for now…
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
Is to pick a conversation coming up this week to practice deeper listening skills. Are there any surprises? What do you discover that you did not expect at the outset?
And if you’d like catch my musical earwig, take five to read the full lyrics or listen to ‘Orwellian’ by Manic Street Preachers.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!