Listening is a really valuable gift that you can give someone and mentoring is a great way to share that gift.
As a mentor it allows you to get to the real reasons that can hold people back and it gives your insight as to how they can move forward. With experienced mentors we often discuss that the best mentors are the ones that have the right questions not the right answers.
As a life skill it is simply invaluable and a cornerstone of high emotional intelligence.
So here is a quick insight into some key areas of listening that I hope will help you personally as well as understand what mentoring can involve:
As humans we communicate a lot so you may assume we are naturally good at it, sadly that is not the case, instead it is a skill that can be learnt, practised and continually improved.
Research suggests that we focus and remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear.
That means that when you talk to people that are important to you, including your family, they on average will be taking in less than half of the conversation. The added challenge is you won't know which of the 25-50 percent they missed!
As a mentor it means unless you are aware of this challenge and continually focus on improving your skills when you are in a conversation with your mentee you aren't taking in all of what they are saying either.
There is another reason why focus is important as our life mentor specialist Adam likes to remind us:
“Whatever you focus on expands” In other words if you are looking for particular themes or confirmations you will only listen and look to the part that reinforces your focus. That focus then becomes utmost in your mind and has a greater impact for you.
Clearly if you are using this knowledge to focus on positive outcomes this can be a very useful way to listen and communicate. The issue here is that humans are very good at focussing on negatives not positives.
A great example of this was on a recent episode of Location, Location, Location whereby the usual unflappable Phil Spencer had an especially challenging young couple who had big ideas but a small budget who had rejected his 5 suggested homes. For once getting visibly exasperated he challenged them what was their thinking before entering each home – they agreed it was ‘focus on finding and telling each other what they didn't like’ rather than ‘focus and discuss how can we make this work for us’ after 2 years of communicating this way between them on their house search the impact was they had no home!
To get the best conversation, impact and engagement you need to connect emotionally. My friend Professor Kiran Trehan reminded me of this at one of her lectures quoting Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Listening shows how much you value someone – you make them feel their views and opinions are important to you and that you care.
This includes all your relationships business or personal - all of these will work better if they connect with you through communicating on an emotional level.
This is hard for some mentors – they feel they need to be senior and be the guide. That isn't mentoring and having an ego in mentoring is unhelpful to you and your mentee - Let that go.
To connect with people emotionally, you need to be just you – there is only one of you and people will feel when you are being authentic. Share with them what motivates you and what you really care about and whilst doing this listen fully.
If you share your feelings whilst reflecting back what you have heard and understood, you will create an emotional connection that will really help you both.
What is your mentee really sharing with you?
Whenever someone is talking then:
Speech is 7 %
38% is pitch, emotion, speed, volume and tone
So the majority the 55 % left is body language
Your ears can only pick up the sounds of language, not its physical expressions. Your ears can only hear what is being said; they pass on the signal to the brain.
Hearing what is NOT said only takes place in the brain itself.
Your brain simultaneously processes and works out signals from the eyes and the ears, picking up these so much faster than conscious thought.
Listening needs to include all your senses. Start thinking what is being said? Is there anything not being said? What hidden messages are there below the surface? Do the non-verbal signals match the words being said? Why did they say something? Has anything been left out? Do you feel they are being authentic, transparent and honest?
Your personal and professional instincts are very powerful tools that are really helpful to you here.
So by being observant and focus on using all of your wider information tools you will becoming better at understanding unspoken messages and therefore become a much better listener.
Everyone has biases and to be a great listener awareness of these biases is critical. Overall to be a good communicator means you will also have a high level of self-awareness.
We can apply bias without realising through
- Isolating the evidence
- Strengthening the evidence
- Weakening the evidence
- Dismissing the evidence
One example of bias is with closeness communication bias.
You may think that someone you were close to would really understand what you meant.
Research shows that people who knew each other well understood each other no better than people who had recently met!
People frequently overestimated their ability to communicate, and this was especially with people they knew well. Our problem in communicating with people we know is that we have an illusion that they really know and understand us to the extent they can ‘fill in the gaps’ in other words when we speak with people we know well, we make presumptions about what they understand.
So in the mentoring world you need to take as much care with a mentee that you have been working with for a long time to continually check your and their understanding as you would with a new mentee relationship.
One quote here is that “you have been given two ears and one mouth, so you should use them in that proportion”. That’s useful and there is even more to think about to achieve “active listening”.
The way to improve your listening skills is to practice "active listening." This is where you make a conscious focussed effort to hear the words that another person is saying and critically focus your attention the complete message being sent. To make this work you will need to use your brain and concentrate a lot! The quality and effectiveness of any conversation depends on the quality of your brain’s response to listening.
There are lots of reasons this is difficult for us:
Our brains are the control centre. We hear physically with our ears, but we listen with our brains. There is a big difference between hearing and listening. It’s like the difference between seeing and reading. One is passive and simply happens when you simply abstractly watch the TV ads whereas the other is active like reading the newspaper.
Our brains like seeing everything that's going on. There are usually lots of other distractions your brain likes to focus in on. The environment, what's going on around, noises, phones, your next meeting let alone your own thoughts. To overcome this challenge it is best to find ways to focus your brain and show you are actively listening by reflecting comments, checking understanding and paying attention. We all know how awful it feels when you know someone isn't really listening to you.
Our brains work quickly. So quickly that it actually processes words around four times faster than the other person can speak them. That means your brain has a huge capacity to wander off elsewhere unless you keep it focussed. The interesting thing is if you concentrate on focus you won't get bored so you are even more likely to take more in and gain a better relationship and understanding.
Our brains multitask often poorly. So if you don't focus your brain the results are likely to be that you are distracted by other things, creating responses or counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking or even worse interrupt them, have your attention come and go and you will miss vital things. Once you lose that listening engagement it is very challenging to get it back.
Our brains like efficiency – It makes conversation interpretation easier for us by filtering information using assumptions based on prior knowledge and experience. This means our brains are naturally quickly drawing conclusions and assumptions and seeing the situation purely on the basis of what’s happened before in our experiences and what we have stored in our memories. This is clearly a great tool to save our brains effort and energy but it's not especially helpful for great listening skills. It also means you are naturally framing your listening assumptions based on just your view of the world.
Our brains like analysis – This can distract you however if you are careful it can be used effectively to help the listening process Some questions to consider are Is this what you both intended for the conversation? Is this what you expected them to say? Does this fit with what you already know? Does this change what you think? How do you know what they are saying is accurate? Is there any evidence either way? If you have any concerns – why - are they not saying something?
How to improve listening with your brain
The great news is once you appreciate that something you have done naturally for your whole life could be improved by practice and awareness then it is easily improved. Here are some quick practical actions:
Focus - When someone is talking to you, stop everything else and listen fully until the other person has finished speaking without interrupting.
Attention – In a face to face meeting fully engage all your senses. When you are on a phone call especially fully focus on it rather than get distracted with activities such as typing an email.
Physical - Get physically involved. Sometimes the mind takes cues from what the body is doing. Face the other person squarely if you’re face to face and look at them. If it’s on the phone, make sure you are positioned with a clear desk without a screen in front of your face.
Respect - Avoid interrupting or finishing other people’s sentences. It is critical to focus more on the other person than you do on yourself.
Present - Focus on being in the present moment and what people are saying right now. It will help to focus fully on what they are actually saying as opposed to what your response is going to be.
Clarity – Check back and reflect what the other person has said to make sure you understand them fully and correctly.
Time - If the person is talking at length, use your faster thinking time to your advantage and use the extra capacity that you have to summarise and check the message or to review your own listening behaviour.
Notes - Consider if you really need to take notes as they can sometimes be a barrier.
Observe – Next time you are out and about watch others listening behaviours and see what works.
Simple steps like these will really help you.
They all make it clear that you value the other person and your relationship with them.