Are you listening to me?

Prague Leaders Magazine, January 2007

As the only beings on the planet blessed with the power of speech, we often take for granted how complicated a process communication can be. Understanding how we communicate with one another and the needs involved can help us become more effective as professional, both when speaking and when listening.

To help illustrate the importance of listening in communication, I have chosen to use the experiences of Jana, a student of mine, as an example.

As the new project manager of an international consulting company, Jana was offered the chance to participate in the company’s leadership development training program. She returned from the workshop enthusiastic, motivated, and ready to apply her newly learned skills.

One of her main challenges was her relationship with her boss. In her new position as project manager, she often felt that her boss didn’t listen to her, which led to a growing sense of frustration when communicating with him. Hence the need for training.

When I asked Jana about the main benefits of the program, her answer was that she finally understood that listening is an active process which involves a sender and a receiver and that both parties are responsible for the process: the sender to make sure the receiver receives and understands the message and the receiver to let the sender know that he has received and understood the message. She also understood that the more involved and engaged both parties are in the process of communicating, the better the results.

In communication, the difficulty for the sender is to appropriately involve the receiver and to ensure that the message is correctly received and understood. For the receiver, it is to give proper feedback on how the message has been both received and perceived.

What Jana realized is that listening can be difficult when the speaker is boring or when advice or information is unsolicited. That is because many people tune out when they have no control over the incoming information, and no way of stopping the conversation. On the other hand, most people are willing to listen to someone they find likeable, interesting or when they need specific information.

To my surprise, a few minutes into the conversation, Jana blurted out, “But that’s not it. The main benefit of the training was realizing that the best way to get someone to listen to me is to be able meet one of his four core needs”.

Although the leadership development program Jana attended was mainly devoted to effective communication, listening skills and feedback, it also talked about the elements that shape the direction of our life, such as our goals, our values, our behaviors and needs.

The Four Core Needs

The first core need is for Certainty, which is connected to our need for comfort. The best way to make people feel comfortable when we speak to them is to synchronize our communication style to theirs by matching and mirroring (i.e. using the same body language, the same tone of voice etc), or to speak about something they know and/or like. Certainty is related to our comfort zone. One question remains: how much comfort do we need in order to feel secure in who we are and what we do? And how much discomfort do we need to learn and grow? With too much certainty we run the risk of losing interest in the person or the topic we are dealing with, while not enough certainty can trigger a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.

For some however, this is a core communication need in itself. The need for Uncertainty is related to our need for variety and change and can be met by behaving in an unexpected way, by surprising someone or by offering new ideas. In today’s ever-changing world, the quality of our life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty we can live with. It is in the realm of uncertainty that our passion is found. But too much uncertainty can create a high level of stress and insecurity. While some people like their work to be structured and predictable, many enjoy more challenging and diverse types of activities.

The third need is the need for Significance, which is a reflection of our desire to be unique, to feel needed and appreciated. Having heard my Czechs students tell me many times that they feel respected when people listen to them and to their opinions, I asked Jana what need she was trying to fulfill by expecting her boss to listen to her. She smiled and admitted that when she heard the definition of someone with a strong significance need, she realized that her expectations came more from her own personal need to feel important, as that is how she normally feels appreciated and valued by her boss. The new training allowed Jana to view her communication with her boss from a broader perspective and to adapt her style to focus on the goal she was trying to achieve instead of her own personal needs.

The last core need is for Connection and Love. For Czechs, a very kinesthetic nation, this need is crucial. Above all, anyone who wishes to communicate with Czechs has to find a way to make them feel good about themselves. Czechs need to get emotionally involved in communication as both senders and receivers. Their deep desire to feel appreciated and supported is often missed by those who do not have connection as their main expectation or need.

Everyone assumes that people process information the same way that they do, which is why we tend to communicate on the basis of our own needs. Someone who needs certainty will provide certainty regardless of the other person’s expectations and someone in need of change and variety will provide change and variety and so on.

What Jana discovered therefore, was that the key to understanding her boss’s needs actually lay in the way in which he himself communicated with her. Until recently, she had dismissed this information as irrelevant.

To develop her listening skills, Jana realized that she had to change her approach to communication and start with a clear objective in mind. In her relationship with her boss, she needed to change her focus from, “I cannot work with this guy because he never listens to me” to, “What is my boss’s primary need, and how can I meet this need in order to make him more receptive and open to what I have to say?”

Listening skills depend on what we are listening for. In other words, why do we make the effort to listen to someone – what do we expect to get out of it? Which of the needs (certainty, uncertainty, significance and connection) are we trying to meet when we speak, and need someone to listen to us, or when we listen?

Next time you are in a dull but unavoidable listening situation, use the time to focus on the need you are trying to meet as well as that of the speaker and enjoy the learning experience.

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.