Lean Communication

Lean Listening, Part 1: How to Use the Second Conversation

In my series on Lean Communication, I have so far focused on the transmission side of the communication: how to increase value and decrease waste in what you say or write.

But there is probably no aspect of communication which contains more waste than listening. We’re all guilty of divided attention, selective hearing, and overconfidence in our ability to understand. The result is error, inefficiency, wasted time, and damaged relationships.

Lean listening is such an involved topic that I will cover it in four separate articles. In this first one, we’ll examine the major cause of waste in listening, which by coincidence is also the best tool we have for ensuring maximum value with minimum waste. In other words, the obstacle is the way to lean listening.

The major reason for waste in listening is the second conversation that goes on in our heads while listening, which is caused by the bandwidth mismatch between speaking and thinking. Standard American English speakers produce about 125 words per minute, but we process words mentally at least four times as fast (and flashes of insight and intuition may be orders of magnitude faster). While that should make it easier to follow what the other person is saying, what happens instead is that the extra processing capacity usually goes to the second conversation that we have with ourselves while someone is speaking.

It’s extremely difficult to avoid the second conversation during a dialogue. When the other person speaks, we listen to their words, and at the same time we listen to ourselves: our reactions, impressions, questions, or rebuttals that spring unbidden into our minds in response to their message. Or we use the extra bandwidth to think about something totally unrelated to the conversation, maybe because something else has caught our attention.

Sometimes that second conversation helps our understanding, but more often it interferes, because we truly can’t carry on both conversations at once. Even if it’s momentary, we stop listening to the other person long enough to hear ourselves—but sometimes we don’t revert to the first conversation in time, and miss something that was said. Or, we automatically assume we know how the sentence is going to end, and begin forming our response, and we miss the zig where we expected a zag.

So, what can we do about it? The trick is not to try to silence your second conversation—you can no more slow down your rate of thinking than you can control your heartbeat. The trick is to use the second conversation to support your listening rather than interfere with it. The second conversation become a help and not a hindrance when it gets you focus tightly on the value of what is being said, find or impose order on it, and cut through the clutter of waste in their conversation.

Think of the second conversation as a coach who is in the room while you are talking to the other person, who is closely paying attention and is asking questions to make sense of what’s being said and not said. But not just any random thought that comes to mind: this coach is listening for lean communication from the other party.

To make sense of that last statement, think about it this way: if the other person is communicating in a perfectly lean manner, you would not have to improve your listening, because you would get exactly the information you need for your purposes. But since that usually doesn’t happen, the main purpose of lean listening is to help the other person be lean. You do this by listening for the aspects of lean communication that contribute to value and waste, and ask questions or adjust where there are gaps.

The important thing about the second conversation is to keep it focused on asking questions only about what is being said (which includes non-verbals), not about what you are planning to say in response. The questions you ask yourself are the ones that keep you focused on finding the five major elements of lean communication, which is the topic for the next three posts: Lean Listening for Value, Lean Listening for Waste, and Lean Listening Techniques.

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