As I mentioned last time, we live in a complex and hectic world. I’ve had Elvis Costello’s song ‘Peace, love and understanding’ on the brain for a while now and have been thinking about potential reasons for misunderstanding each other.
A lovely friend gave me a Poet and Painter card for my birthday recently, entitled ‘Understanding‘.
The card shows a picture of a barcode and underneath it says
‘Even with a barcode, it’s not just the lines, but the spaces in between.’
It’s true, isn’t it? A barcode needs the gaps as much as it needs the printed lines of different widths.
In the same way, a conversation is only a conversation if it has gaps in it. By definition, a conversation is ‘informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc., by spoken words’. A conversation with no gaps would be a cacophony of people talking over one another.
The topic of how to be a better listener crops up from time with time with my coaching clients – in fact, it did so last week and so I showed Mike (not his real name) the card.
‘The gaps are the hard part,’ said Mike, who is in middle management at his organisation. ‘Whether I’m talking to my boss, my colleagues or my team, I sometimes feel the need to fill the gaps. If I’ve given tough feedback to a team member and they don’t respond, I feel like I have to keep justifying the feedback. If I don’t jump into a gap left by some of my more vocal colleagues, I’ll never get a word in edgeways. If I’m pitching an idea with my boss and there’s a big gap in our conversation, I feel like I need to do some more explaining. Also, sometimes I don’t leave a gap when I should – if a team member brings a problem to my attention, sometimes I just rush and offer a solution, rather than asking some helpful questions and leaving a gap for them to explore the options.’
Mike and I spent his session discussing how he could become a better listener by being more comfortable with the gaps and using them differently. Here are four key points from our conversation which might be useful to you:
Look for the gaps in what the other speaker has said
What hasn’t she mentioned? If a team member comes to you to report on a group project and mentions the contributions of three of the group but not a word on two of them, what’s happening there? In his regular review meeting, your direct report talks about what’s happening in the office but doesn’t mention the five-day training course for which you sponsored him last month, did it not live up to expectations or has he just forgotten?
What we don’t say can be just important as what we do say.
Leave a gap before responding
Rather than spend your listening time jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, hear the other person out. Use your attention to concentrate on their ways, then pause and respond. If necessary, ask further questions to clarify. If appropriate, summarise back to them what you believe they’ve said so that you can check your understanding.
Don’t rush to fill a gap
Mike mentioned that sometimes when he was nervous, whether that was when on a long journey with a new colleague, or in a discussion with his manager, he sometimes felt awkward about gaps in conversation.
In the first instance, Mike decided that he needed to remember that this was a conversation rather than a monologue and that sometimes a companionable silence is absolutely appropriate. There may be all sorts of reasons why the other party isn’t chatting – tiredness, all topics of conversation have been exhausted, or maybe he simply doesn’t feel the need. Mike will work on accepting those gaps.
In the second instance – feeling the need to justify a decision or proposal – Mike is going to work on delivering his words with confidence and assurance and then pausing to let his manager consider them.
If necessary, create a longer gap
There may be times when Mike needs to postpone a response – maybe when giving or receiving feedback, or when a suggestion is made to him. Rather than rushing to reply, Mike will propose re-scheduling the rest of the conversation, giving all parties time to think.
Mike went away from our session with action points to help him be a better listener – and a better conversationalist.
Today’s pebble for you to ponder: when you’re in conversation, are you paying attention to the gaps?
Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.
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