Colin Smith On The Philosophy Of Listening And Forging Stronger Human Connections

Listening is arguably the most important life skill we can have. It’s how we show we’re connected to each other, how we process information and turn knowledge into wisdom.

It’s also about more than just hearing someone and Colin Smith has dedicated his life to helping people become better listeners and developing their own philosophy of being connected to someone else.

In this interview, we delve into listening techniques, the musicality of listening and how leaders can get better at paying attention.

Let’s start with your personal story and how you got to where you are today.

I like to say I’m in the third half of my career. The first half was working on computers in the early ‘70s to understand how they work and how they connected. The second half was working for a consultancy in the late ‘90s, working with people and how they connected, which led to the third half, which is the work I do now.

Today, I’m known as The Listener and it comes in three parts. One is that people need to feel heard, valued and to know that they matter. The second is the quality of my attention and listening can help people think more deeply for themselves. The third is that people want to know how to listen.

That sounds fascinating. Through all your listening work I’m sure you’ve applied different methodologies to the people you work with. 

Have you been inspired by any particular methodologies or have you brought your own perspective into listening?

The first point to understand is the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing keeps us safe. We may be in a busy, noisy, restaurant and someone calls out your name. I may not hear it, but you probably will, and ask, “Did someone call out my name”. Hearing is passive, you don’t need to do anything.

Listening, on the other hand is active.  You have to intend to listen.  I talk about how we hear from and we listen to. 

The next level for me is a series of things that people can do that will improve the quality of their listening.

An easy example is when you’re about to talk to someone.  Stop all distractions and put away your phone and laptop. Make sure you’re looking at them, not staring, more like a soft gaze. 

Another example is don’t offer a solution or try to fix something. Just sit with the other person, be interested and curious about what they may say next.  Remain calm and quiet.  They will notice and appreciate it.

A third technique is don’t interrupt. This happens all the time, everywhere, in all conversations.  Just observe the conversations going on around you now and notice all the interrupting.

The less we interrupt the more it gives the other person a chance to speak. Things really change when you become a listener.  I like to illustrate this in my workshops by playing a piece of music four times.

The music I play is about 40 seconds long.  The first time I invite you to just hear it. The second thing to focus on tis he piano and the drums.  The third time to focus on just the vocals. When you listen for the fourth time drop all instructions and just be fully present with the music.

I have been accused of changing the music, which, of course, I haven’t, it just seems that way now they are fully listening.

I use a simple model, called The Relationship Journey, that starts off with connection. As you have good intentions throughout, you enable trust to be built and to grow.  You use active listening to further develop the connection and to build rapport.

When you understand the person, you have reflected back that you understand what they are saying and what they mean and they’ll say something like “yes, you’ve got it.”  This creates a much safe place for them to be able to speak up and speak out on topics that matter to them.

If the journey is done well, you are in a better position to influence and guide them in new directions. 

That makes a lot of sense and I like that you touched on music because I feel there’s a rhythm and musicality to listening and it’s different for different people. 

What I mean by that is you might get a faster rhythm when you have two people who like to talk a lot. With two people who prefer to listen, the cadence is slower and more relaxed. 

What are your thoughts on a rhythm of listening? 

I love that. One of the things I notice is that when I’m at a concert and I sit with it in a place of stillness and everything else drops away, I’m deeply connected with the music.

The same is true with listening.  At the start of the conversation the speaker may have arrived animated, speaking loudly and quickly.  My arrival is calm and quiet.  As they speak out what needs to be spoken, they soon settle down and join me in the calm and quiet.  

At the start they are connecting from their head. In the quiet they are dropping into their heart.  Like with the music, the more we are both connecting heart to heart the words that are exchanged feel different, they are coming from a deeper place.  

It feels like I am being spoken. What I have noticed is that when this happens, I may not know what I’ve said or what they’ve said but the right words have arrived and have been received by both sides. 

So, when you’re truly engaged time goes quickly and both sides feel engaged in the flow and the rhythm. 

Interesting. That reminds me of the improvisational aspects of jazz and the free-flowing of that sort of music. 

You’ve mentioned before that you’re a curious person and I believe curiosity is a superpower in that it constantly pushes people to move forward. What do you think of this?

I think curiosity is 100% a superpower and if I can sit and focus on my breath and allow baggage and preconceived notions to drop to the side, then all of it is replaced with curiosity.

That is especially important when you have a fresh conversation with a person you last spoke to six months ago and you realise you’re both different people even in that relatively short space of time.

Curiosity is accepting that you don’t know where a conversation will go but you remain open-minded and engaged. 

Speaking of curiosity, I’m curious to hear if you’ve been inspired by any other listeners throughout history. 

There are a lot of different philosophies of listening I find appealing. One example is Chris Voss, an FBI hostage negotiator and another is the spiritual guru Mooji,

I’m also influenced by a book called You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.  She’s a New York reporter and she tells lots of stories about the listening she’s done in different parts of the world. 

Finally, Nancy Kline and her books, Time to Think, More Time to Think’ and ‘The Promise that Changes Everything’ have made a profound impact on my listening work.

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in cherry-picking from different traditions and schools of thought and applying them to your own life experience. It goes back to the idea of physical and intangible spaces and how we apply these things when listening.

How do you think we can create an intangible space for becoming better listeners? 

There’s a lot of talk in organisations about psychological safety and how it’s about creating a metaphorical space for people to feel safe and to be comfortable speaking up and speaking out. 

In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle showed that psychological safety was the number one factor in determining successful projects.

This ‘safe space’ is intangible, as nothing is actually built. It’s a feeling we have when we’re in the presence of another or a group.  We feel relaxed, calmer, able to be honest with what we’re feeling and okay sharing our thinking, however extreme it may be. 

In doing so, these thoughts could be ‘the answer’ or could spark off conversations that in the end find the answer.

It arises from the calm, stillness and presence one person, or the organisational culture can bring.  It is one of those ‘places’ everyone notices and feels.  This space is created by listening, building trust, and genuinely being in service of another

I 100% agree with you. I believe that it’s crucial for leaders to be able to create these intangible spaces. 

What are some listening techniques you’d recommend to leaders to create intangible spaces for their staff to feel comfortable? 

One CEO I’m aware of made it clear she was listening by her actions. Whenever she met someone, be that in her office, in the corridor, around the coffee machine, etc., she would put her phone away. 

She never made it a big deal, but it sends a clear message that the speaker matters.  And that message could be with a group or an individual person signifies that the conversation is important. 

An everyday example could be in a pub, where someone behind the bar asks a regular if they are okay after not being around for a while. It’s different than just asking, “What do you want to drink?” The end result, i.e. getting a beer is the same, but the relationship between those two people is different. 

Another example is the way that leaders can set things up. When the leader becomes aware of a problem, typically they go into the room, explain the problem and tell the group what they think should be done.  How many of the group will offer alternative solutions? 

Another leader will explain the same problem and then ask the group what do they think.  They will facilitate the thinking by ensuring everyone gets their chance to speak, that everyone listens to what is being said.  

They may also have the group go into pairs for each person to go deeper with their thinking, before returning to the main group to share their freshest thinking.  Throughout, the leader remains curious, supportive and engaged.  When they feel everyone has shared their thinking, it is much easier to make a decision.  

At the end, they can offer words of appreciation for each individual for who they are, not what they do.  In doing so each feels heard, valued and that they matter.  

Isn’t that what we all want to feel?

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