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embedded listening
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Are you all ears...?

Monday, 17 January 2011

Listening. It’s one of those things that trainers and coaches bang on about ad nauseum. It’s a key part of most management training courses these days, and rightly so. And yet it’s one of those things that is still overlooked, misunderstood, and that fails to integrate with our self-understanding and awareness.

I’m going to start with a couple of questions. When was the last time you heard someone say “I’m not a good listener”? And when was the last time you admitted or accepted a personal ‘deficiency’ in this area? My guess (and my personal experience) is that it was a very long time ago for both; please do share your experience below if it’s any different, because I’d be intrigued!

In formal coaching or training environments (therefore in non-everyday or real situations), where there is a specific focus on listening, the majority of people can do it, and do it reasonably well, after some practice and with some tools and techniques. However, listening is something enormously helpful to do all the time, but, because it is rarely embedded as a valued activity, it (real, focused listening) often simply gets bypassed. I’m interested in developing embedded listening.

Embedded Listening - a definition

Embedded listening is when we listen (and absorb using all of our senses) without making a specific effort to do it. We’re in the listening zone, attuned to the other person and effortlessly focused on what they are communicating.

Embedded Listening - an example

My “personal best” (in my opinion!) was many, many years ago, and came about purely by chance. I was passing Cambridge and decided to pop in and see an old college friend for a quick chat and catch up.

Roughly six hours later, I realised that I should be heading back to London - I had to be in the office the next morning, and it already was the next morning. The time had simply vanished...

”Where did the time go” is one indication of Embedded Listening, but it is nowhere near enough. Reflecting on that evening, which I have since done with the other participant, the conversation was truly astounding. We had no personal agendas; we had no defined subjects (or no-go areas); we had no objectives. With that extreme level of freedom, we could simply talk, and use each other as the inspiration for the development of the conversation.

There are a few absolutely critical aspects essential to operating at a level of Embedded Listening - and it’s an interesting exercise to experiment with them to explore and experience when happens when we do it. For example:

Listen to their words

Words are essential, powerful things, and it’s incredibly helpful to listen, intently, to the specific words that someone is using. There are numerous ways of describing one thing, and, at either a conscious or unconscious level, a choice is being made to select one rather than the others. Absorb their words, don’t translate them into your words, and see, hear, feel how it changes your understanding.

Understand more than the words

Words are a big part of the story, but they’re not the entire story. How people use them adds richness, depth and character to conversation; so use other senses, in conjunction with your ears, to learn even more. Their tone, their movement, their face, their eyes: valuable sources of information.

Remove yourself, stop thinking and start enjoying!

When you are practicing Embedded Listening, you’re not worried about the direction of the conversation, because you are totally engrossed in what is happening right now. Embedded listening is not about saying what you want to say, concerning yourself with the conclusion, or translating and modelling what you’re hearing; it’s about thoroughly enjoying the moment.

Have you ever been reading a book and become so absorbed in it that there could have been a nuclear explosion and you wouldn’t have noticed? That’s what happens when there is truly Embedded Listening.


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