I went to a very strange event a few weeks back. A small gathering of CEOs were paired off and had to do a few 'exercises'. These included staring each other in the eyes for 2 minutes, standing back to back and telling each other our life stories and trying to define the meaning of life (readers of Douglas Adam's Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy will know the answer is 42).
The purpose of the exercise was apparently to make us listen more meaningfully to each other. The basis of the need for such an exercise was that apparently we only listen to each other in order to find a gap in the other person's speech into which we can interject our own comments and views. Staring into someone else's eyes for 2 minutes can feel strangely uncomfortable for sure. It's not something you'd normally do with anyone except your partner. Try it with someone you work with and it will feel totally weird. Staring at them whilst they talk is more likely to make you feel uncomfortable. Should you stare back at them, drop your eyes, look at their hairline? Ironically, the result is most likely to be that you won't be listening well at all, because your mind will be too full of your own discomfort.
Standing back to back whilst the other person talks is more interesting. You do have to listen intently to the person if you are going to have to play back what they are saying to a moderator afterwards. And as you have no visual clues you listen to the tone of the voice, its hesitations and its warmth (or lack of it). These things can tell you a lot about what the other person feels about what they are saying. Of course visual clues are critical to humans as well, and we read a lot currently about it being a major barrier to AI that robots can't read emotions, either aural or from facial expressions.
But I think the real trick to listening properly is to allow your interlocutor to become, as the coaching expert Myles Downey says, 'the player'. Reading his excellent book Effective Modern Coaching recently I realised that this single idea could transform the way we listen to each other. Within any business taking on board this idea of 'the player' can not only help managers develop into great, empathetic coaches, but also help them transform the performance of individuals and teams.
And this can work not just in business, but in our personal lives, with friends, partners and children. If, whilst someone else is talking, you tell yourself that they are the player, and not you, it transforms the way in which you listen to people.
The point of the player concept is that it forces you to accept that it's the person talking, not you, that is the important one. Your role is to listen, and with some small prompts, tease out what that person really thinks about things. Your natural ability to watch their body language and the tone of their voice will hopefully enable you to know when they are not quite telling you the whole story and explore the issues with them until they do. Even just staying silent so that they open up and fill the space can be a very good trick.
I think it's an idea we can apply much better in business. As Dr Nicola Millard, the Futurist and Consumer Psychologist employed by BT plc points out, "We only listen to our customers to find out whether they have heard what we are saying." Thinking about the client as 'the player', is perhaps a way of truly listening to what they have to say. Only when we know what our customers and colleagues want can we truly help them - and we don't get there by talking at them, but by listening to them.