Deep Listening: 10 ways to strengthen connection while social distancing
Standing on a busy corner in Los Angeles with a “free listening” sign was a humbling experience. This was not an experiment in rejection—though I experienced much of that. It was an experiment to engage in conversation with perfect strangers on the street with no other goal than to listen deeply. This required stretching my listening muscles into uncertainty and ambiguity.
This experiment was led by Urban Confessional as part of a QRCA Conference. I have conducted thousands of sessions as a qualitative researcher, which have made me an expert at listening and asking thoughtful questions. My frequent “free listening” via phone or video call to meet the global need for connection these past weeks has further flexed my listening muscles.
COVID-19 has caused a collision of our business and personal worlds in myriad ways. The slurry of emotions being stirred up by this crisis is spilling over into our work. Deep listening on the job is now more important than ever, because our emotions carry a powerful weight. Left unchecked, they can negatively impact our interactions. Compound that with social distancing and we find ourselves in a situation ripe for negativity.
The Good News: Deep Listening Can Overcome the Negative Impact of Social Distancing
Overcoming the hardships of social distancing requires deliberate connection with those around us. Deep listening can form a bridge to compassion and empathy—much needed gifts in our current reality. Communication with those around you must reflect an understanding which stems from deep listening. This is especially critical for anyone in a leadership role.
The Hurdle: Deep Listening Doesn’t Just Happen; It Requires You to Deliberately Follow a Set of Key Steps
The following guidelines will provide direction to strengthen your relationships through the practice of deep listening, especially while social distancing.
Bring awareness to the situation.
Check in with yourself before engaging in deep listening and throughout the conversation. Acknowledge and process any biases toward the person or situation; writing them down can be helpful. Bring awareness to these biases and focus on releasing them as best you can. Ensure you are not engaging in deep listening with the goal of fixing the person’s situation. Focus only on authentic listening.
Set the stage for listening.
Put aside any distractions. Pretend this conversation is the only thing happening in the whole world. That is how intentional you need to be. Check your body language, even if your listening is on the phone. Your body language can impact your engagement level. When the person can see you, your body language needs to communicate support, encouragement, and active listening. Set your intention for deep listening. Are you listening to connect, understand, or for a different purpose? Decide and commit to staying with that intention.
Monitor your listening.
Be intentional in regarding the other person’s experience over your own. If your mind starts to wander, redirect it. This can be done with a clarifying question (“How did that make you feel?” “What else is going on?”) or through the use of supportive body language (nodding, eye contact).
Explore and clarify.
Your questions need to be open and free from judgment. Sometimes a simple, “Say more about that” can be enough to achieve full understanding. Clarifying questions seek to authentically understand further. Make sure that what you are taking in matches what they are saying. Your clarifying questions will help you understand the situation deeply.
Allow space for full-out venting.
After the person has finished talking, you want to make sure they got everything out that needed to be said. Ask: “Is there anything else?” If there is, you need to go back to listening while deferring judgment. Continue asking if there is anything else until the answer is “no;” you can use this as an indicator to turn your focus to the emotion.
Uncover the emotion.
To gain complete understanding, you need to get at the emotion behind the situation. Ask: “How does this make you feel?” Once the emotion is expressed, your job is to validate it. Suppose the emotion expressed is sadness; you need to think about a situation that elicited the same emotion (a shared situation is the most impactful). Ask: “Is the sadness you feel similar to the time your son broke his ankle or closer to when you were taken off the new business project?” “On a scale of 1 to 10, how sad do you feel?” “What color would you associate with your sadness?” Ask exploratory questions until you truly understand the emotion associated with the situation. This step is key in not only validating the emotion, but also ensuring the person feels completely heard.
Be open to silence.
While deep listening, you will talk less and listen more. Pauses may seem interminably long. You may feel uncomfortable, awkward, or even like you want to run. Stay with it. Honor the person by holding yourself in deep listening mode. Search their body language for cues when it is OK to talk or listen for the pauses.
Lead with empathy.
Show the person you are listening, asking clarifying questions, and rephrasing. Stay focused on “seeing” the person’s heart. Allowing them the opportunity to have their say without judgment communicates acceptance. And don’t we all need to feel real acceptance right now?
Employ deep listening to connect with those around you. Wherever you may find yourself, people desperately need deep listening. We are all going through a very difficult situation. Nobody is immune. Companies/teams/colleagues/parents all need to be sensitive to the unique needs emerging during this time. If someone shares something that requires professional support, help them find the right resource.
Deep listening will strengthen your relationships when they need a little bolstering. If you need help in implementing these best practices or could use some “free listening,” please reach out. We can all help each other emerge stronger from this pandemic.
Marta Villanueva is a Bicultural/Bilingual qualitative researcher/strategist with experience across categories and methodologies (online, in-person, telephone). She has a M.Sc. in Creativity and Change Leadership which adds a rich dimension to every engagement. Marta is the co-chair for the 2021 QRCA conference and the QRCA 2015 Maryanne Pflug Award Winner.