Listening skills

Lean Communication - Listening skills

Lean Listening Part 3: Minimizing Waste

So far in this series on lean listening, pills we’ve seen how the second conversation in our heads can be deployed to help us rather than hurt us, and how to use it to listen for value. This article shares ideas on how to use the second conversation to help us cut through the clutter and reduce waste. We do this by listening for the main point, sale making the logic and language transparent, and filtering out the irrelevant.

Listen for Organization: What’s the Point?

How many conversations do you participate in where you feel like you’re on a hunt for buried treasure? Under a torrent of words, you know there’s a point in there somewhere, and you hope it will show up soon. If your conversation partner is practicing lean communication, cialis they will put the bottom line up front for you, but if not, it’s up to you to figure out their main point as quickly as possible, because having it makes the rest of the listening process fall into place. Not knowing their main point makes it hard to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, or the important from the merely interesting.

So, your main listening task is to identify and gain agreement on the main point as quickly as possible. Ask yourself if you’ve heard the point, and if the answer is no, ask. Do they want something from you? If you haven’t figured out their “ask” in the first thirty seconds, ask them: What do you need from me? Why are you telling me this? If they won’t tell you, be on your guard.

Listen for Transparency

Next, do you understand the logic and the language of what they’re saying? Logic refers to spotting the structure of the other’s argument. A clear logical structure makes it much easier to spot gaps, inconsistencies, and irrelevancies.

If the other person is communicating lean, following their logic should not be a problem, but if you can’t spot an underlying pattern, you can help the other person communicate more clearly to you by asking them for the structure that you prefer. For example, most business proposals fall into either a problem/solution structure or an investment opportunity (and they’re not mutually exclusive). If you can identify which of these applies, you can trot out your own mental template to help slot the incoming information in its proper place. For example, if they’re proposing something to solve a problem, listen for these four main areas:

What’s the nature of the problem: is it described accurately, are the root causes clearly understood, and what are the consequences of not solving it now? What criteria will they use for a solution? What alternatives have they considered? What are the advantages of their recommended solution?

As to language, there is so much room for misunderstanding in ordinary conversation, but we often don’t ask for clarification because we think it might make us look slow or ignorant. Don’t let your ego get in the way of effectiveness; make it a practice of asking for clarification or definition, or a concrete example of an abstract term. If you can’t picture it, you may not understand it—and often they may not either. For example, if someone says they want to improve quality, ask them to describe the gap between what is and what should be, or get specific examples of customer complaints.

Listen for Waste

Once you have identified the main point, it will make it easier for you to organize and classify the incoming information. You can apply the Four-I test: concentrate on identifying the integral and important information, enjoy the interesting without getting too distracted by it, and ignore the irrelevant. You should mentally ask yourself “So What?” periodically to ensure that what you are hearing contributes to the purpose of the conversation. Once again, you are perfectly within your rights to ask the question out loud (as tactfully as you think you need to be), to ensure that the content of the message is aligned with the purpose.

Read More
Lean Communication - Listening skills

Lean Listening, Part 2: Listen for Value

In the previous post, we said that lean listening is about listening for lean—paying close attention to the elements of the conversation that add value and minimize waste. This article focuses on the value part of that equation.

The thing about listening for value is that most of us are already pretty good at listening for value in conversations—as long as it’s our value. But in persuasive business conversations, there are usually two other parties that could potentially benefit: the other person, and the larger purpose.

Value in lean communication is defined as communication that improves outcomes for one or both parties while respecting the relationship. In lean communication, value can be added by one party, or jointly created by both. Listening is crucial either way, but especially so for the joint creation of value. It’s the key to getting the best thinking out of all parties in the conversation, first by allowing you to ask questions that dig deeper into the situation, and second by making it safe for the other person to bring up thoughts they might have kept to themselves. And, by involving the other person in whatever is agreed to, it makes it more likely that they will follow through.

You may recall that one of the tests of lean communication is who did the work. For example, the speaker may dump a mass of details and expect the listener to make sense of it. But lean listening does not care who did the work—just that the work gets done. In a conversation, you should take more than 51% of the responsibility to ensure that value is created, even if it’s you who has to do the work for the other person.

This 51+ rule means that if you are the one presenting the idea, you need to pay close attention to how the idea is being received, and whether you are getting active commitment rather than passive acquiescence; if you’re unsure, don’t hold back from asking questions to ensure the level of agreement you’re getting. If you’re the listener, listen for the question: what do you want me to do and why? If a question is asked, did you or they answer the question?

You can extract more value by taking positive control of the second conversation. If you don’t take control, your second conversation will default to looking for and noting negatives, such as differences between you and the other person, or obstacles that stand in the way of getting what you want. Try to listen actively for intersections of your interests and theirs. If your individual differences seem to be too far apart, listen for a higher purpose that you both can support, such as a specific value or goal of the organization.

Remember that value is defined by the customer, which in lean communication means the person you are speaking with. But the customer is not always right, because what they define as value may not be what is best for them or for the larger purpose. So, besides listening carefully for their view of value, you must always be on the alert for signals that indicate additional chances to add or create value. It’s like driving: your eyes are fixed on the road ahead, but your peripheral vision is alert for signs of unexpected danger.

In conversation, these signs fall into two categories: intentions and obstacles. Intentions are where they want to go, such as their plans, goals, desired future states, and values. Obstacles are elements of the situation that hinder their realization of intentions, and they fall under four general categories: Problems, Opportunities, Changes, and Risks (POCR).

They may not be explicit in these, or even be totally aware of them themselves, so listen carefully for the signs of value; it’s amazing how much extra you can pick up if you’re alert for these. I once videotaped a sales role play in which the “buyer” revealed five potential intentions or obstacles in about thirty seconds. When we reviewed the tape, the seller had missed all five, and the buyer was not even aware of three of them that had come out of his own mouth! But what’s interesting is that when we reviewed the video and looked specifically for signals of value, they popped right out.

All this may seem like a lot to remember, so here are just two questions you should have in mind to help you listen for value:

  • How can I help?
  • What can I learn?

If you keep these questions involved in your second conversation while listening, you are almost guaranteed to improve outcomes for all parties concerned; and you will definitely respect the relationship at the same time.

Read More
Listening skills

Listening Math

Have you noticed that most of the training we need is about what we already know, but don’t do enough of? That’s certainly the case with listening skills. We all know how important listening is, but we all fall short of the level we’re capable of.

The interesting thing about listening skill is that we all can perform at top levels when we’re really, really motivated, so it’s not a question of knowing what to do; it’s about executing at the necessary level consistently.

If you think you’re a good listener, here’s some listening math to ponder:

50/25/10 A study showed that the average person remembers only 50% of what was said immediately after a 10 minute oral presentation. After 24 hours, the figure drops to 25%, and to 10% after a week. The first 50% is not a memory problem, it’s a listening problem, as anyone knows who hears a person’s name for the first time and “forgets” it ten seconds later.


500/125 In standard American spoken English, we speak at about 125 words per minute, but process words mentally at about 500 words per minute. I’m not sure how scientific the thinking speed measurement is, but it’s obvious that we can think much faster than others can speak. That’s why it’s so easy to get distracted while listening to someone else. We think we can listen and think about something else at the same time, but we’re actually rapidly switching back and forth – except when we forget to switch back.


583 The number of people killed when two 747s collided at Tenerife airport in 1977, caused primarily by a chain of listening errors and misunderstandings between pilots and air traffic control, and between pilots and copilots.


80/45 Those of us in business spend up to 80% of our waking hours in communicating almost half (45%) of our communication efforts consist of listening. There’s a lot of effectiveness left on the table if we’re not listening to our full potential.


43,8 The average length of a political sound bite on national news in 1968, and the average length in 1988. CBS News tried to counter this trend by mandating a minimum 30-second sound bite, but had to abandon the effort when people would not listen.


18 “That’s the average time it takes a doctor to interrupt you as you’re describing your symptoms. By that point, he/she has in mind what the answer is, and that answer is probably right about 80% of the time.”  Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think


N = 1 One of the reasons that doctors (and possibly ourselves) tune out is that we think we’ve heard it all before. Maybe the other person needs advice with a problem, and it’s something we’re familiar with. Every conversation has a sample size of 1, because every person feels themselves unique, and maybe if we listen a little longer we may learn something new ourselves.


51+ This is a number I made up. 51+ represents the minimum level of responsibility you should take for your side of the conversation. When listening, don’t just passively take in the other’s words; meet them more than halfway and make sure you get their meaning. When talking, don’t assume that they got it just because you said it, make sure.


Read More
Listening skills - Persuasive communication

Festina Lente: The Power of Patience in Persuasive Communication

snailIn this rushed and distracted time, prescription there seems to be more and more incentive to get results fast, solve problems, cut to the chase, and multi-task. We scan headlines, give continuous partial attention, consume sound bites, and then hurry on to the next shiny object, because we think it makes us more productive. In fact, most of you probably won’t finish reading this post – and you’re the ones who need it the most!

Is it possible that all this speeding up is just slowing us down? Or, medicine looking at it from the other side, can slowing down actually get us where we want to go faster?

That’s the idea behind the motto: Festina Lente, which means “make haste slowly”. In this series of articles, we’ll explore how old-fashioned patience can make us better communicators.

Patience is a personal quality; it’s a state of mind; it’s a habit, and – most importantly – it’s a skill that you can develop (over time). The good news about the skill of patience is that it’s scalable. You can get results in terms of improved learning, relationships, and persuasion from slowing down by less than a second, just as you can all the way up to the level of months or even years. I know you don’t have the patience to read through the entire scale, so we’ll start small in this article, and move up the time scale from there in other articles.

When Seconds Count

When someone else is speaking, do the spaces between their words sometimes seem interminably long? Do you begin formulating your response to the other person before they even finish their sentence? That’s because you can think much faster than they can speak. Although that sounds like an advantage, the problem is that after you begin thinking about your response, you are now listening to a different conversation, and you tune out of theirs; maybe you even interrupt. Either way, the price of impatience is missed information or making the other person feel slighted.

Cultivate the habit of listening fully and intently to the other person, focusing on the words and the non-verbals; try to extract every gram of meaning that you can. Don’t worry about not having enough time to compose a response, because the speed of your thinking will give you plenty of time to do so when it is your turn to speak.

Probably the most valuable split second in persuasive communication is the space between the other person finishing their sentence and you opening your mouth to speak, because that’s when you either react or choose to respond. Unlike Jeopardy, you don’t get points for speed of response. In fact, pausing even for less than a second can help you tremendously. It gives you time to formulate a more thoughtful response; if the conversation is difficult or emotional it gives you time choose your response; it makes you look more thoughtful. In addition, because so many people have what Tom Wolfe called information compulsion, they may have an overwhelming need to fill that small moment with additional information.

The third opportunity to use patience on the seconds time scale is during your presentations and speeches. Some of the most eloquent and powerful moments in speeches are the pauses. I’ve seen too many people deliver a major point – and then ruin the effect by rushing on to their next point before the audience has had a chance to take it in. Small pauses will seem long to you as the speaker, but they will appear natural to your listeners and make you come across as confident and in control.

If you want to work on developing patience, these small split-second intervals are a great place to start. Work on these ideas for the next couple of days, and then we’ll move up the scale to minutes, and after that, focus on strategic patience, or the days, weeks and months.

Read More
1 2