The Essential Communication Strategy: Are You Willing?
This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by Switch & Shift and the good people at SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership. Keep track of the series here and check our daily e-mail newsletter, for all posts. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.
“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” ― Bryant McGill
It’s difficult to understate the importance of interpersonal communication in almost every aspect of our lives. Communication builds relationships – and relationships form the basis of any successful collaboration, be it business or personal.
Why then, aren’t we better at it?
Like me, you’ve probably encountered many different teachings on the topic of effective communication over the course of your career. Most of these correctly identify listening as the process where most communication breaks down, and therefore focus on techniques designed to help us improve our ability to listen effectively. However, the following operating rule from the Improvisational Theater community more succinctly captures the essential element of true listening than anything I have ever come across in a traditional training:
“Listening is the willingness to change.”
Take a moment to let that sink in.
This simple sentence totally changed the way I think about listening. It speaks not to the act of listening, but to the why of listening. It speaks to how you bring yourself to the conversation. Are you listening to respond? To defend? Even to understand? Or are you truly open to the possibility that what you hear may take you and your understanding to a new place?
Listening is the willingness to change.
In the art of Improvisational Theater, where actors collaborate to build a performance in the moment, this type of listening is critical to allow a seamless flow with the other actors. Any attachment to how you personally think the sketch should go immediately disrupts your ability to connect to where it actually is going. The very presence of a different idea in your head reduces your ability to fully listen to the cues and stay connected to the flow.
Merely entering a discussion with such a willingness to change, serves to align your entire being with the intent to understand and to learn, naturally promoting heightened awareness and focus. The need to coach yourself into “listening” dissolves, as listening with your entire being becomes a natural behavior necessary to achieve your intent.
Merely entering a discussion with such a willingness to change, serves to align your entire being with the intent to understand and to learn, naturally promoting heightened awareness and focus.
How often do we listen to each other with this type of willingness? Probably far less than any of us would like to admit. Imagine for a moment the difference this simple change in perspective could make to our relationships in the office, at home, and in our communities. A few things that jump out to me include:
The most transformational change that could result is the development of a culture of mutual respect. I respect you enough to enter this discussion open to the possibility of learning something new, and as a result allowing my mind to be changed. Think of the impact on employees, customers, spouses, and children if we consistently engaged with them in this manner. In our government this small change could help us achieve something in desperate need — civil public discourse.
The very presence of a different idea in your head reduces your ability to fully listen to the cues and stay connected to the flow.
Listening with a willingness to change sets a stage of openness and connection that allows collaboration to occur. When coupled with another universal rule of Improv, “Say Yes, and,” collaboration happens almost effortlessly. “Yes, and” refers to the practice of accepting the gift of another’s idea with an affirming ”Yes,” and then adding to it with a contribution of your own. “Yes, and” is the forcing function that keeps the dialogue moving and building. Just a single “No,” or a thinly veiled no in the form of a “Yes, but,” immediately stops the flow.
Innovation is ultimately about creating something new. It fundamentally requires a willingness to change. It requires a willingness to learn and gather ideas and perspectives from any source, allowing new connections and ideas to form. If we don’t listen with a willingness to change, we miss the insights that lead us to new connections.
If we don’t listen with a willingness to change, we miss the insights that lead us to new connections.
Continuous learning requires that we loosen our attachment to what we know, in order to open ourselves and allow our knowledge to deepen and grow. The practice of listening with the willingness to change may just be the defining trait of a true learning organization.
Ted Rubin beautifully sums up the benefit of true listening while discussing The Problem with Assumptions in his StraightTalk blog: “when we make a conscious effort to get out of our own way and look at things from another person’s perspective, good things happen. Relationships grow, ideas flow, and we make better decisions.”
Listening with a willingness to change is about getting what we already know, or think we know, out of our way, so that we can actually listen and learn from others’ perspectives. Improvisational theater has many lessons applicable to both our business and personal lives, and not surprisingly is a growing segment of the executive training market. For an entertaining overview of the rules of Improv and their applicability to life and leadership, take a few minutes to watch Dave Morris’ talk at TEDxVictoria, The Way of Improvisation.
We all could benefit from improving how well we listen to each other, and this insight, from a seemingly unlikely source, may provide just the shift in perspective necessary to foster real change. Are you willing?
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