Why Am I Still Talking?  W.A.I.S.T. — The Lost Art of Listening



By Joseph Shaffner,

North Rock Leadership


Over the years I have observed that the best leaders, the most successful sales people, and the most respected and well-liked people, are good listeners. Improving your listening skills can be a game changer. In my last article, I wrote about a handy little acronym H.A.L.T.  Today, I want to share with you another acronym that is simple to remember and offers some tips on being a more effective listener.


Have you ever been at a party and had someone go on and on about themselves? Just when you think you are going to get a word in, they continue to tell you about themselves. It is obvious that they are not the slightest bit interested in you and are definitely not good listeners. There is a great line from a not-so-great movie; “But enough about me, let’s talk about you... what do YOU think of me?” (CC Bloom, Beaches,1988 ) I use these points to illustrate what it is like to be on the receiving end of a bad listener and as a lead up to W.A.I.S.T. — Why Am I Still Talking.


I learned the W.A.I.S.T. acronym from my mentor coach program instructor, Scott Howard. Scott told his students to write WAIST on a sticky note and glance at it occasionally while coaching. In my training and travels as an executive coach and leadership development consultant, I have come to appreciate the power and necessity of good listening skills. A coach who is not a good listener will not be successful. A sales person who does not listen to their customer will not sell much. A spouse who does not listen effectively to his/her spouse will create friction in the marriage.


How can you know if you are a good listener?


In 1957, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens published an article in the Harvard Business Review called Listening to People, which said, “It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills that would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.” Their research observed that listeners only remembered about half of what they’d heard immediately after someone finished talking.


There’s no reason to think that that ratio has changed since then, and perhaps has even gotten worse.


Technology is also a major inhibitor of listening. I am still awestruck when I go to an airport or to a nice restaurant and see how many people are sitting in a zombie-like trance looking at their gadgets. No conversations and no talking—much less listening to others.


In their seminal coaching book, Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives, Whitworth, Kimsey-House and Sandahl define “Three Levels of Listening” that coaches should be able to achieve with their clients.


Level I - Internal: Small talk makes us aware of others: For example, “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” In this level, you are really focused and what you are going to say next. You are not fully connected. Poor listeners and poor leaders often get stuck in Level I.


Level II - Dialog: This is when you are doing most of the listening to the other person in the conversation. You are tuned into what they are saying. In Level II you notice shifts in mood and tone. Think of your first date with your first true love. You probably asked a lot of questions about him or her and visa versa. Good listeners spend a lot of time in Level II.


Level III - Global Listening: This is when you are “at one” with the person who is talking. You are in the same cosmic bubble. You lose track of time. You don’t even know you are in Level III until you pop back up to Level II. Level III is achieved by great listeners and takes practice. Think of watching a great movie in a theater, when the movie ends you suddenly snap back into reality as the credits roll.


The aforementioned person at the cocktail party is not even at Level I because there was no listening at all. Maybe we should coin a level of listening: “Level 0.”


As obvious as it sounds, good listening builds trust and intimacy with people. This is valuable in both life and work. Poor listeners can hijack meetings, client interactions and business objectives.


There is no human being that I know of who does not like the sound of these words; “I thought about something you said or tell me more about…”


Here are some tips to increase your listening awareness:


Try Better Listening Today… It’s Free - During the next conversation you have, try to do 80% listening and 20% talking. Be curious. Note that you have a more meaningful connection.


Observe Your Listening and Take Notes - Put a sticky note on your screen that says WAIST. Glance at it while you are talking. Are you interrupting or completing sentences for others? Take a breath. Observe people who you deem are good listeners.


Try and move your Level I into Level II - Stop spending time formulating your responses and telling them about yourself. Listen to what people are saying. An exercise I do in workshops is to pair people randomly, have them talk for one minute, and then tell the group, what they heard and the color of their eyes.


Step Away From Your Device - I tell all my clients to put their phones and laptops away when they are in meetings, on phone calls, and especially when one-on-one with a person. Glancing at your phone during lunch with your boss or potential client is sending the message that they are not important, and that you are not listening… a real turn off (pun intended).


Take Notes - After you put your device away, pull out a notebook and jot down key points of the conversation. Not verbatim, but salient points. You can repeat them back to a person and it will demonstrate your listening and interest.


Learn Empathetic Listening - Seek to understand, before being understood. Think about what is in the conversation for the other person. What are they feeling? What do they want you to hear? This is valuable in both your personal life and at work.


Talk About It - Be a leader and ask your colleagues, managers and employees to think about listening awareness. Everyone is talking about mindfulness. Listening is a big part of being mindful.


Have the Courage to Approach Bad Listeners - Unless it’s your CEO, understand that you and your colleagues owe it to yourselves to “call out” a bad listener if they are monopolizing a conversation or discussion. Do this privately and couch it as a win for them. For example, “Lisa, can I give you a suggestion on how to win people over more quickly.” I have done this and most times people thank me.


Although these strategies are easy to understand, the hardest part is to make them a continued best practice. I have benefited greatly from honing my listening skills in the past few years.


Thanks for taking time to read my article. I hope it provides some helpful tips. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with listening. Send me an email at joe@northrockleadership.com. North Rock Leadership offers seminars and webinars on improving listening skills and other topics. This would make a great lunch and learn! People with food in their mouths find it easier to listen!


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Executive Coach and

Professional Development Consultant


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Executive Coach and

Professional Development Consultant