How to listen empathetically. Challenge #1 — selective listening!

How to listen empathetically. Challenge #1 — selective listening!

(The second article of the four part series)

Our consulting work at Centre of Gravity depends a lot on understanding people as human beings first and customers later.

What this means is, whether it is in a remote rural village or an upmarket address in Mumbai, we have to meet complete strangers and their families. In the first few minutes, we need to set up an invisible space, a bubble where they feel comfortable and are able to trust us; to talk to us freely about their lives, their anxieties, their relationship with their family, walk us through their entire home and sometimes wardrobes and trust us to not share it with the world. If we don’t get it right, the interview just skims the surface and we are out of their house in half an hour.

It’s the initial minutes that decides how the conversation goes. And often, this rests on whether we are interested in what is being told to us without being judgemental and without feigning interest. In other words, whether we are really listening. As, I mentioned in the earlier article, listening is a deep, respectful and sensitive act. When someone talks to us, they expect us to give them a sensitive hearing.

Now, some of our conversations go extremely well, some mediocre and many even go south. Over time, we have at least understood what helps us in listening well and what comes in the way. We have normally encountered three main challenges

  • Selective listening rooted partly in our self-identity and partly sub-conscious
  • Non-verbal cues which we mostly miss
  • Distractions rooted in our ‘state of being’ (physical, emotional, mental)

I will discuss the first major challenge in this piece — selective listening.

One dimension of selective listening is to listen with an agenda. I see this as the highest form of disrespect and even an act of violation . This often occurs in our professional sphere of life and we all are guilty of it.

Now what is this listening with an agenda? To illustrate, I remember a day-long brainstorming session with a client and his agencies. What struck me about the session was that throughout the entire discussion, the agencies were only listening for ways to convert the problem into additional revenue, rather than thinking of what is right by the brand.

Or I am sure we all have been part of meetings where the main guy has already made his decision, but goes through the ritual of asking everyone. Though it looks like a ‘buy-in’ story, it is a deep act of disrespect.

The second dimension of selective listening is biases.

Biases are the ones that actively orchestrate and shape the way we listen and respond. They are there, lurking around in our minds and spring up at the right time, influencing our thinking and listening. Like Grima Wormtongue whispering into king Théoden’s ears and controlling him (Lord of the Rings).

And whats interesting is that, most of us believe that we don’t have biases; we believe we have views and opinions but they don’t really hamper our listening or response! And that we normally listen from a neutral place.

Some of the core bias areas which we are ‘aware’ and have ‘views’ on include gender, religion, political leanings, body size, caste ( especially in India), color and race bias.

We just need to take a look at our WhatsApp forwards on women disguised as humor or peek into our Facebook conversations to know whether they are deep rooted gender and religious biases or just opinions that we don’t really take to heart.

Recently, I played back something a friend of mine mentioned in jest: Women in his residential society were clamouring for maids as they could not manage the housework and the society was refusing this due to Covid-19. It was when my wife and daughter bared their fangs on me, I realised I had missed the casual sexism in this comment.

I consider myself a liberal, open minded individual but even when we are watchful, some subconscious and inherited beliefs just slips through.

While these are biases, which we may be aware of, there are deeper ‘Cognitive Biases’ that we are not even aware of that hampers our listening. There are nearly fifty of these; here are a few which tend to come up more often.

  • Confirmation bias: We have a certain hypothesis in mind and seek out and see only data that proves it while becoming blind to other possibilities. E.g. We were doing an engagement for a large chemical company to assess the areas where CSR funds could be effectively deployed (rural areas). I remember my colleague going after education as the only option and creating an argument in its favor, though field data suggested otherwise and pointed to other routes.
  • Anchoring bias: We tend to rely heavily on the initial set of information that is given to us. E.g. My earlier perception that all westerners were well travelled and highly exposed to the world of brands or all Indian classical performing artists are spiritual. Now, if I end up meeting a stranger from the western country or a performing artist, since I don’t know anything about them, I would listen or engage with them through the lens of these biases.

Halo bias: The demeanor of a person tends to shape our perception and our listening of them. E.g. if the person is affable and jovial, we feel we could trust him or her in most matters, though it may not be true and vice-versa.

  • Authority bias: We accept and believe that whatever a person or institution of authority is saying is true. Now, when we listen to that person or read something from an institution, we are listening with this bias and not questioning anything that is being said. The documentary ‘Inside Job’ on the financial crisis of 2008 illustrates this very powerfully.
  • Framing effect: The way we listen and react to an information varies depending on how it is presented. E.g. recovery rates of people afflicted with COVID is around 97 percent as opposed to 2000 people dying daily of COVID.
  • IKEA effect: We tend to place a far higher value on things created by us; used effectively by brands to charge a hefty premium by allowing the customers to design/ create their own stuff.

Now, our biases are very elusive and we can never be fully rid of it. What is possible, is to become aware of them and work at keeping the empathetic listening widow open for a wee bit longer, before they creep up again. It reminds me of the machines in the movie Matrix or the aliens in Avengers- just when you think that you have things under control, bam, few more appear and then some!

Some practices to counter selective listening

  • Taking things at face value: The most important thing is to accept whatever that is being said at face value rather than lob grenades at it, at the first instance itself.
  • Focusing on the conversation: The simplest way to push the judgements and evaluations a little further down the line is to take notes, summarise and ask questions to clarify rather than to provoke or judge.
  • Hunt for negative evidence: Before you start to build an argument or rebuttal, seek out ideas that prove otherwise.
    I somehow am not able to bring myself to trust pharmaceutical companies or their products. In a discussion, my natural tendency is to go on the offensive and try and prove my point. Now, instead, if I pause and look for evidence where it has made the difference in my life or to my close ones, it would make my listening and response more un-biased.
  • Stereotype replacement: Many times, our biases could be because of certain stereotypes that we have in mind about the person talking to us. Again, taking a personal example, my negative stereotype of godmen or religious leaders. The moment I see them, it evokes a certain kind of reaction. To counter this, I tend to look for or think of spiritual leaders or thinkers who convey a positive image in my mind like Ramana Maharishi. This helps me to listen /keep an open mind when I hear these godmen.
  • Taking an effective pause: Normally, we want to jump into the conversation, quickly respond with our arguments and rebuttals. Sometimes taking an effective pause during these times works effectively. When we take this very small pause, it allows both the listener and the speaker to explore a bit more, to formulate their thoughts. In this brief window, you may probably want to reconsider what you were about to say too.
  • If nothing else works, it may be worthwhile to look at our insignificance in the greater scheme of things and let go.

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