4: How to Listen for What to Say

Intuition is very often praised as a necessary skill of leadership - but it is also very poorly defined. Most people simply do not have a concept of where intuition comes from or how it works, so discussions of intuition tend to degenerate into "unexplainable magic or unreliable hooey" as if it were a supernatural power available only to psychics and wizards.

However, intuition is a trait that everyone relies upon. Even those who consider themselves to be down-to-earth and pragmatic often begin their analysis with a theory that "just seems right" to them and their calculation of probabilities is based largely on gut feelings.

Our perception of the world is not an unbiased assessment of what we see and hear, but an intuitive sense that derives meaning from stimuli by testing them against things that seem likely, based on our knowledge and experience. In that way, intuition is based on reason, but represents a state in which we have a sense that something may be true but insufficient evidence to trust in our assumptions.

There are many self-help books, both for business and private life, that looks to the power of these early judgments - called emotional intelligence, instincts, and other labels. These pre-analytical feelings guide a great deal of our action: we seldom deliberate decisions and mostly act on what we feel to be true but are not entirely certain of.

And in many instances, our intuition turns out to be correct - though it is arguable because we tend to justify a decision after the fact, particularly when it works out in our favor. Also, when we find something that works, we seldom consider other alternatives, some of which might have worked out better.

Particularly when conversing with others, we act intuitively. Were it not so, conversations would be very fragmented, as there would be short bursts of speech followed by long pauses when we are thinking about what the other person has said and deciding how to respond, rather than just going with the flow of conversation and trusting our instincts as we normally do.

Listening to Your Own Three Centers

A good practice for critical thinking and developing intuition is to pay attention to your own thought processes in terms of your three centers:

Being self-aware can help you gain control over your emotional state, to recognize whether it is supportive or inhibitive of a good decision. If you are self-aware, you will know that you are frightened or excited by something, and recognize how this emotional reaction shapes and distorts your perceptions and feelings.

Very often, bad decisions are made because we did not consider all the information that is available. Out of haste, we follow our initial emotional reaction without realizing we are having an emotional reaction - or if we react it, we may not have validated it.

To become self-aware, it is necessary to figure out how you feel about something before considering what you think of it - and to question whether your thoughts are rational and your emotions are supportive of rational thought or counterproductive to it.

A common practice is "sleeping on" a decision, particularly a big one. It is not that the decision is made while we are asleep, but that we recognize the need to take time and mull things over. This doesn't necessarily have to wait until the evening, when we are at home and relaxed. Ideally, it should happen within moments of receiving information, before a decision is even made.

Three-Centered Listening to Others

Once you have learned to apply the three-centered model on yourself, you can then start to apply it to others - to listen to what they are saying to determine whether their decisions are being driven by instinct, emotion, or reasoning.

As an aside, the author again denounces the approach of having a formulaic technique or a list of stock questions to insert into conversation. They are seldom appropriate and highly artificial, and relying on a formula gives the other person the impression that you are not really listening to them and do not care - and what's more, having a formula encourages you not to listen or to care: you are not really paying attention to them, but are listening for cues to bring up one of your ready-made devices and trying to usher them toward your predetermined goals.

She also suggests that people tend to favor reasoning and downplay emotion and instinct. Instincts are often very bad, as they trigger a patterned response based on superficial perception - but in many instances things work out because our instincts are essentially correct. In some individuals, their instincts are very well tuned and guide them to an effective and efficient solution most of the time.

Emotion, however, is an essential component in human experience and particularly in motivation. There are many instances in which a person knows (reason) what they ought to do, but are not comfortable (emotion) at the prospect of actually doing it.

Emotion is also compelling. Many leaders write out mission statements and give speeches in a way that is purely rational, but is not emotionally engaging to the audience. In business, managers talk about statistics, budgets, task assignments, and the like in a very matter of fact way, without considering how their employees feel about what they are being asked to do.

Reason is good, and it is indispensible - but to rely solely upon reason to the exclusion of all emotion is insufficient.

She then strays into nonverbal communication: face-to-face conversation communicates so much more than the content of the verbal message. If you "listen" to their gestures, expressions, posture, and tone of voice then you can gain a complete perspective that will tell you not only what another person thinks, but also what they feel.

In particular, nonverbal communication can tell you when someone is uncomfortable with what they are telling you. Their words send one message, but their nonverbal cues indicate that they don't really believe in it, and might even be lying (consider how interrogators study body language).

So when you listen to another person, consider all three elements:

Of importance: you do not need to know exactly what is interfering with the other person's thinking - and in some instances it is best that you don't "know" because your assumptions may be correct. What is important is that you detect an inconsistency and incongruity, and enable them to explore it further.

It's also significant to note that the three centers of listening are not only about witnessing another person's communication, but are also valuable to determine your own tendencies as a listener. Hearing is selective, just like perception, and we tend to pay attention to certain aspects as a matter of habit - so during a conversation you should be aware of whether you are taking a balanced approach or relying upon your own default setting. It may take effort to remind yourself that there are three separate centers, and to listen for all of them.

Conversations in the discomfort zone often focus on the instinctual level of interpretation. People are perfectly comfortable talking about their reasoning, and do not generally take offense when someone questions it or suggests a different analysis. It is only when their emotions are engaged that they become engrossed in the conversation, and it is only when their instincts are triggered that they have a strong emotional reaction.

Also, remember that the literal message contains only those thoughts that a person can articulate. We are often driven by thoughts that cannot be verbalized - and because they cannot be verbalized they are not a component of the literal message - but you can witness them in body language, whether interpreting exactly what it means or merely having the vague sense that there's something very important that the other person cannot articulate or wishes to avoid.

And again, keep in mind that problems are rarely solved in the course of a single conversation. The "eureka" moment may occur between conversations, as someone reflects on what was said and a new idea dawns upon them.

The author provides a "partner exercise" in listening, in a bit too much detail. The fundamental exercise is getting another person to talk about something that upsets them, with the understanding that you will simply be listening to them. Do this with someone whom you already have trust, but make sure that they talk to you about a real problem and set the expectation that you will simply listen and refrain from making comments or having input. While they speak, practice three-centered listening to analyze them from a rational, emotional, and instinctual perspective.

Use Emotions to Move the Conversation Forward

There are many times when we find ourselves "stuck" in conversations - the issue has not been resolved, or even identified, but we do not know what to say next to move the conversation along.

This is often because we are considering only the rational component, and what might follow logically from what has recently been said - and we find ourselves at a point where logic alone does not lead to the next step.

Emotions are not always positive. When speaking of a problem, a person may express negative emotions - but these should always be related to their thoughts about the past. When they begin to color their expectations of the future, they need to be examined.

A word on humor: it should be used judiciously, with care that it is not perceived as mockery of the person or the problem they face. Humor can help jostle someone out of pessimism, or it can cause them to distrust you.

Of importance: you choose which emotions you express, but should not fake emotions that you are not genuinely feeling. This is noticeable and leads to distrust.

The Value of Silence

Some people are uncomfortable with silence, and believe that it is always harmful, but this is not always so.

Sometimes another person will fall silent because they are withdrawn from the conversation - but very often it is because they are thinking, and you should not interrupt their thoughts with chatter.

Sometimes, you will have nothing to say - and silence is more effective than desperately trying to fill the "void" in the conversation. Keep quite and think of something useful to say, or be patient and the other person may begin speaking again.

Silence when listening to someone is a sign of respect - you are giving them time to speak, allowing them to gather their thoughts, or considering what they are saying. It can be more powerful than "filler" content used to deal with discomfort.