You can’t spell LISTEN without an I…?!

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Have you ever listened to someone properly? I mean, properly. Listening involves more than turning your head into the general direction where a friend, colleague or even your boss is sitting. Listening skills are often very, if not the most, underdeveloped skill in a leader’s skill set. Well, why should you waste your time improving your listening skills? You have two ears, both are functioning, or maybe just one, but that’s still enough, right? Spoiler alert: It’s not. The good thing is: You can improve your listening skills with one simple little thing.

Why Listening Is So Hard For Us

Every time you hear someone speaking, there is a little voice inside your head screaming: Why are they talking? Why is not everybody focusing on us? You will, in most cases, not hear this voice actively, and it might also not be very loud – but trust me, it’s there. Whether you would like to jump in and turn the conversation towards yourself, or whether you have the desire that someone asks you a question. There are plenty of ways this voice is dominating you, without you even realizing. If you think about it, it’s also very obvious why we have this little voice living inside of us. Human beings are social beings, and we cannot survive without socializing. Which means your desire to get to know other people, to compare yourself to them, to hear what they are thinking – all comes back to securing your own survival. Don’t @ me, I know it’s an imcomplete and kind of exaggerated picture I am painting, but you get the point, right? Being social, and listening to others, is selfish. And there’s the reason why really listening to anyone is so hard: Because for some minutes or hours, we have to work against our instincts, stop drawing attention to ourselves and stay with our friend, colleague or boss.

Not Everybody Draws Attention To Themselves – Or Do They?

It is quite logical that depending on our character, we will not all jump into a conversation and scream: Let’s talk about ME! And only ME! – Instead, drawing attention to yourselves can take many faces. You can cough a little to make people notice you. You might make a face that says: Ask me about my dog! You might actively interrupt someone to tell them how interesting their story is. There are ways which are immediately recognized by everybody in the room as what they are. These will most probably not lead to success (and are the most annoying ones, to be honest). Not talking at all, and desperately waiting for someone to ask you something will also not lead to anything – it’s too passive. There is one way which is very common and will also be successful in many, many situations: The “I”.

Drawing Attention To Yourself – Grammatically

It’s a simple matter of grammar: The moment you mention the first person pronoun, everything you say is about yourself. Try it out! Try talking about a topic, let’s say, cats, and start the sentence with “My neighbor’s cats”. You will create a sentence which entirely is about those cats (imaginative or not), and there will be a picture in your head of those cats playing, fighting, purring, eating or throwing things on the floor (because they are cats).

Now do the same, but start the sentence with “I like about my neighbor’s cats…” – and check what is happening. Did you notice the difference? Even if you used the exact same content, the picture in your head has changed. The focus in now primarily on yourself, and the cats are only the second most important thing. This is the beauty of grammar – we learn it when we are little babies, and it helps to form our neurons, associations and way of thinking. This means that in the moment you hear someone saying “I”, part of your brain will start to put that person into the spotlight.

Less I, More You

If someone tells you something that bothers them, or why they are sad, or anything that might be difficult for them to say, you want to make them feel heard and seen. That’s good leadership, right? Making everybody feel heard. Yes! Now remember the little experiment from above. If someone tells you something that is difficult for them, and you response starts with I hear what you’re saying – guess what. You automatically steal their focus and take over. It is not about you hearing what they’re saying. It should be about them entirely. Try to think of other ways to react. They know you’re hearing them. And frankly, they don’t care what your position is. They want to feel acknowledged. The best way to do so is to let them have all the attention, even the grammatical one. Start your reaction with a neutral statement. Instead of saying I think that this sounds bad, just keep it simple. This sounds awful. Instead of talking about your own perspective, ask them a question. How did you cope with it? Or gently encourage them to go on with their story – which will assure them that you’re staying with them and that you’re listening closely. What did you do next?

You don’t need to avoid the “I” forever and always – just eliminate it from your immediate reaction, and be aware of it when you’re using it. We often start sentences with it without even realizing. I think this is bad may be meant as an empathic commentary and that person will be confused it it’s not received as such. Being a little more aware of the power of grammar will make a great difference for someone you’re speaking to some day – I promise.

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