(As part of Empathy at Work, I will be regularly publishing blogs on different communication skills and techniques. This is the first of these blogs. This method is one I’ve built and refined and expanded. The original credit for the core exercise goes to the infinitely creative and wise, Mark McKergow and Jenny Clarke, who shared it with me as an exercise in 2003).

Almost everyone who experiences being listened to appreciatively, reports that it feels good to feel so deeply heard, seen and respected.

These qualities alone would be good reasons to give something 3 to 5 minutes of your attention.

However, that’s not people’s experience. Listening of this kind is very rare, so rare that it stands out for people who attend my workshops.

Why don’t we do more of it?

There are a lot of reasons. For most leaders, talking is what characterizes their days. Answering questions. Setting direction. Speaking with people about what needs to be done.   It’s not unusual for a leader to want to find the “speed up” button when people are speaking or to be multi-tasking.   Consequently, it’s not uncommon for leaders to feel impatient with speakers and to view listening only as too passive a form of influence in their busy schedule.

However, Appreciative Listening is not passive. It is a highly active, totally focused form of attention.  It is not active listening, repackaged. Unlike in active listening where you’re expected to repeat or confirm that you’ve understood what’s been said, appreciative listening asks you to show that you understand the person.

What is Appreciative Listening?

It is listening with the sole purpose of identifying qualities, strengths and values of the speaker that you respect.

Your commitment to do this only needs to be 3 to 5 minutes of focused time.

The payoff is high in terms of increased understanding, improved rapport and in building a more positive work relationship.

The consequences will be that everything begins to work better simply because you have a better understanding of what really matters to the other person.

Appreciative Listening Opens Door to Changed Relationships

Appreciative Listening offers two profound benefits:

  1. It increases the common ground in all your work relationships – even the ones which feel least susceptible to any positive change.
  2. It changes YOU, the listener.

Training yourself to focus on the strengths, the values, the capabilities, the qualities of the person in front of you, will generally mean that:

  • you’ll begin to see “what works” about a person
  • you’ll get more ideas about how to work with this person (especially valuable with perceived “problem” employees)
  • you’ll maybe enjoy or respect this person more in future

When to the Use Appreciative Listening?

Truly, it can be used anytime, anywhere, in any relationship.

It is MOST useful, however, when:

  • someone is talking about a difficult situation or a problem they’re experiencing
  • the speaker is someone you typically find it difficult to listen to, or that you don’t hold in high regard
  • the situation is one where there is little action that can be taken at this time
  • someone is complaining, or is seen to be a chronic complainer
  • you want to build a work relationship or partnership on a great foundation.

The How To:

For the purposes of practicing this skill, I’ve found it’s best to choose a situation where someone at work (or home) is complaining.

In these situations, typically we want to either agree (and add-in our complaints) or we want to make the complaint go away by solving the issue.

Thus, giving your mind a different task – i.e. to focus on the positive qualities and ot values that the person is revealing about themselves will present a challenge, and give you a taste of the way in which appreciative listening creates change in your interactions with another person.

Steps:

  1. Notice someone who is complaining about something
  2. Make a choice to use appreciative listening
  3. Allow yourself 3 to 5 minutes to focus on what the other person is revealing about themselves, and not the problem/complaint that they’re describing. In particular, look for qualities and values that you respect and share that underlie the issues.
  4. Refuse any impulse you may have to help the person, solve the problem, or commiserate.   If you must say something, ask them to say more about why this situation/issue bothers them so much.
  5. After listening, your task is to share your observations or to give a compliment about what you genuinely respected and appreciated about them. Your focus is not on the problem, but on the person themselves.   It helps to express it in such a way that there is room for the person to agree/disagree – for example ~ “I’m noticing that you seem to have [this quality/this value]…is that true for you? Or is that how you see it too?”
  6. You’ve succeeded with appreciative listening if the person receiving your positive observation, signals their agreement with a “micro-smile” or an almost imperceptible head bob.   These are common body signals of agreement with a speaker.
  7. If you do not receive a body language signal from the positive observation you shared, you need to try again. Change the words you used with the aim of saying something that they will positively acknowledge.
  8. Carry on with the conversation.

Notices what happens next in the conversations: 

  • Most often, one of the following will occur:
    • the person stops complaining – they’ve been fully heard and seen
    • the person shifts towards wanting to take action to solve the problem
    • the person leaves you, ready to tackle the issue on their own, or to move on to the next thing
  • If none of these effects are felt and/or the person persists in complaining, consider bringing the conversation to a close, with a repeat of the positive observation and (if appropriate) an expression of faith in the person that a solution will be found

Experimenting with this Communication Tool

I invite you to put on the white coat of a laboratory technician who is running experiments.

Appreciative Listening costs you nothing but the decision to focus your attention.

When you run experiments, you figure out what works for you and for the people in your life and at work.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Decide that you’re going to practice Appreciative Listening once a day for two weeks and then review your experience.   To help you remember, write the acronym, AL in your calendar, next to a specific meeting or upcoming event in your calendar.   During the meeting or event, practice for 3 minutes listening appreciatively for qualities or values you deeply respect/admire in the person who is speaking.
  1. Think of one or more people in your life that you’d like to have a better relationship with (even though you’re convinced right now that isn’t possible.)   Commit yourself to 3 minutes of focused Appreciative Listening with at least one of these people for the next month.   Pay close attention to any new interactions that result.
  1. Think about an upcoming meeting that you have in your calendar where you anticipate lots of conflict.   Schedule into your meeting, a little AL practice for yourself and notice what happens.
  1. Find a safe place, and record yourself having a big ol’ ranting session.   Take a short break – deep breathe, go for a short walk, do something else.   Next, listen to the recording with “appreciative listening” ears, and write down at least 5 positive qualities in yourself that you conveyed in the course of your ranting.
  1. Next time someone stops you in a hall and begs for 5 minutes of attention, give them 2 minutes of Appreciative Listening.   Then watch what happens in the remaining 3 minutes of focusing on the topic/issue at hand.
  1. Choose just one person to practice Appreciative Listening with for a month, and see what happens.   Choose your next person if you like the results.