THE BLOG
05/02/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Navigational Listening: Conversational Intelligence at Work

For a leader, navigational listening is the most powerful tool for gathering information, for influencing others and for creating transformation; perhaps, at times, more powerful than speaking.

The listening mind is never blank or impartial. Our listening is influenced by events, relationships, and experiences. What we hear is influenced by our history. What we hear is influenced by our feelings in the moment. As objective as we would like to be in our listening, we are subject to the effects of our physical and emotional states. Being tired, angry, elated or stressful predisposes us to selectively attend to what we hear.

Recall a recent situation where you were a listener. Did you listen to facts or to specific words? Did you paraphrase these words in your mind? Did this lead to new impressions? Were you affected by the speaker's voice, dress, demeanor, mood, or attitude? Were you evaluating the speaker's effectiveness or importance or were you judging his or her ideas? Or, were you so preoccupied with external things that you didn't listen at all?

Since we can't attend to everything we hear, we listen selectively. But what guides our listening? Why do people who hear the same speech often walk away with different impressions? Obviously, they didn't "hear" the same thing.

We hear one-sixth as fast as we think, and so the mind has the time to construct questions, inferences, and associations. Do we use this time wisely? Do we recognize that ineffective listening is a management problem?

Listening Behaviors
Consider these four types of listening behavior in business:
1. Noise-in-the-attic listening. We may think that being a good listener is merely sitting silently while others talk. Outwardly, we appear to be listening. Inwardly, however, we are listening to the "noise in the attic." Thus, we are disengaged from the speaker's ideas and involved in our own mental processes.

Noise-in-the-attic listening tends to develop from childhood experiences. As youngsters, how many of us heard: "Don't talk while I'm speaking!" "Don't ask so many questions!" "Why? Because I said so!" Conditioned by these warnings, many of us turn off our minds and habits of inquiry. Instead of clarifying the speaker's intent, we are preoccupied with our own internalizations: "Who does she think she is?" "I can do his job better than he can." Or, we may find ourselves planning a trip, remembering a pleasant experience, or even completing a thought--returning from time to time to listen to what is being said. Sound familiar?

2. Face-value listening. When think we are hearing facts, the words we are hearing are interpretations. In face-value listening, the listener isn't mentally "checking back" into the real world to see whether the words explain what they purport to explain. Words are heard more for their literal meanings, not as tools for understanding. This explains why executives, managers, and staff can differ dramatically in their perceptions. Children use face-value listening, since their experiences are so limited. Our experiences should add depth to our listening

3. Position listening. Business has its own listening problems. Employees, alert for clues to their performance, are often victims of position listening, a highly partial form of listening. For example: A manager might listen to her president's annual report to determine whether her division will be growing. What she hears in that talk could easily affect her performance as well as her relationships with coworkers. She will listen to immediate superiors to determine her role. Obviously, position listening can lead to faulty assumptions and destroy the morale of a high-performing team.

4. Navigational listening. Navigational listening is the art of knowing how to listen and how listening affects performance. Listening is not an end in itself, but part of a chain of processes that end in a decision, strategy, or change in behavior or point of view.

Why we listen determines what we listen for. Salespeople listen for customer concerns. Lawyers listen for the opposing speaker's faulty logic. Psychiatrists listen for unconscious motivations. These bits of information are important for such listeners to do their jobs successfully. Training has taught them not to listen at face value, and to evaluate what is said. At the same time, they don't dismiss their emotional response to the speaker, their "feel" for the situation, or their hunch of what might happen next. A framework telling them how to influence a person also guides these professionals. In sales, the marketing rep wants to influence a potential customer to a commitment to buy. The lawyer tries to influence the jury to adopt his or her point of view. The psychiatrist works to influence the patient toward new insights about personal behavior, motivations, or view of the world.

Executive as Navigational Listener
Business executives need to focus on interpersonal influence. Who is being influenced and why? What ideas, beliefs, and behaviors need to be influenced for the person to be more effective? What do I know about this person that will help me better understand her and what is being said?

The Conversational Intelligence™ executive examines the way she or he answers the employee. Will the person listen better if the answers are short and sweet or will listening improve if these statements contain more background information? In practicing navigational listening, the executive listens carefully to the employee's answers--to phrasing, context, and words used to get clues to the real meanings behind the words. The executive will ask questions, rephrase and restate what was heard.

Navigational listening is the most powerful tool of conversationally intelligent executives, which helps us peer into the minds of others, enabling us to set more helpful, meaningful, and satisfying objectives for action. When we adopt the framework of navigational questioning and listening as tools, we improve our ability to communicate and make better decisions.

Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results by Judith E. Glaser (BiblioMotion - Forthcoming October 2013; Pre-order on Amazon now)