I invite you to imagine that you have purchased tickets for a concert given by a world famous pianist. As the day arrives you are filled with excitement, looking forward to finally being able to hear her live for the first time.
You arrive at the concert hall and notice the hubbub of expectation. The lights are dimmed, the spotlight falling on the piano as the curtains are pulled back. The pianist is announced and she comes on stage, smiling at the audience, before sitting in front of the piano. Total quiet descends, you could hear a pin drop. The pianist takes a deep breath to compose themselves and becomes present….
Where is the pianist’s focus now?
As she is about to start playing, a member of the audience stands up as he wants to raise something about what is going to be played. He apologises for not reading the programme notes, but would really like to know what is going to be played, as he has heard many of these pieces before.
What is now going through the pianist’s mind?
Another audience member responds and agrees, another disagrees, the pianist, although startled starts to play, another person speaks and another, she briefly stops playing, but regains her composure and starts to play again.
How are all these interruptions impacting her performance?
About five minutes in, the doors at the rear bang open, everyone turns around and looks, the pianist stops playing and looks, “Sorry I am late”, the audience is told loudly, “there were problems with my train”. Looking now at the pianist, he says, “Sorry, please continue”. Or worse still, “Could you start again?”
How easy will it be for her to pick up from where she stopped playing, how quickly can she get back into the flow?
Midway through the piece the pianist looks up (as they do) and notices some of the audience either whispering to the person next to them, many others are on their mobiles.
What does she think now?
A little later someone else stands up, and interrupts by asking how long this performance is going on as they have a train to catch.
Another stands up, interrupts the pianist, and without asking, offers their version of how this particular piece will end.
During a deep and meaningful part of the performance, a mobile goes off, the pianist stops and looks, so does everyone else, apologies all round, the pianist starts to play again but her performance sounds and feels different now.
What is happening to the pianist? How is she feeling? What is she thinking?
How would you be feeling?
We have all been to concerts, and apart from the mobile phone going off, the others never really happen.
- Is it about respect for the pianist?
- It is not the ‘done’ thing?
- I could be interested and curious as to what they are going to play?
- Possibly attention, at this moment the concert is the most important thing on my mind for the next two hours?
- Maybe it is a chance for me to just stop, be present, be in the moment and truly listen?
Yet all of the above ‘interruptions’ happen each and every day in our conversations and meetings at work, in conversations with our partners and especially with our children!
Research has shown that 60% of all management problems are related to inadequate listening, and in addition, we misinterpret, misunderstand or change 70-90% of what we hear. Yet out of the four modes of communication, Writing, Listening, Reading and Speaking, Listening receives the least amount of formal training (zero to a few hours only) and is the highest percentage of time used (45%)
Returning to the pianist. They will have invested significant time and resource in their work. They love what they do, and they know how to get into the flow. They know that of the million or more notes they play if they get right more than 75% of the notes, it will have been a good evening. A great pianist plays from their heart, and we as the audience will feel the difference when they do, it will connect with us. When they are at one with the piano, in the flow, in the moment, etc., we feel that too.
When we are interrupted, our flow is halted, our concentration stopped. Of course, great pianists can pick things up very quickly, but something, however small, has changed and it will probably be noticed.
When we notice our audience not listening, such as through whispering to another, looking at their watch or mobile, not looking at us, etc., we feel it. We also feel it if their attention has shifted away, even if visually it all looks the same. Children pick this up even faster!
Ideas for being a better listener
- Face the speaker.
- Look into their eyes, even when their eyes move away to think, be there when their eyes return to yours.
- Be present and give them your full attention. Focus on your breath if you find your attention wandering.
- Be interested and curious about what they may say….you will be surprised when you do!
- Do not interrupt.
- Let them finish. Even when you think they have finished, remain silent for a little longer. What comes out next could be so profound it will change everything.
- When listening is done well the speaker will feel heard, will feel valued and will feel that they matter.
- Great listening comes with practice, so don’t be too hard on yourself.