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How Can You Actively Listen if You Are Formulating Your Response?

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

We received a terrific question in response to a previous topic, Do you struggle with keeping focused and on-task when it comes to your conversations? 

Judy from Rochester, NY wrote in: “A couple weeks you shared about long-winded communication where your client didn’t stay focused and on track. In one of the steps, you said: John learned that he needed to be silent at first. He needed to listen, or think - or both - before talking. This helped him be comfortable with the silence. The only issue with this is the assumption that someone can REALLY actively listen, and think/organize at the same time.  The more I read about this topic, it appears that multi-tasking is a fallacy.  How can you actively listen if you are formulating your ideas? This doesn't work for me.  Any suggestions?”

First of all, thanks so much for writing in and sharing this question with us, Judy. This is a great topic!

I agree that multi-tasking is challenging, if not impossible in some cases. Obviously there are some tasks, like brushing our teeth, that we do so habitually that most of us can do something else at the same time. However, I believe it is impossible to think about two things at the same time. People are toggling back and forth, some slow, some fast. The way we balance active listening with organizing our thoughts may be different for each person, and each situation.

If someone is engaged in a conversation, they can actively listen, and then communicate to that person "I need some time to think about this." Or what I do sometimes is repeat what the person said while I am formulating my thoughts. That way I've stayed engaged in the moment. For someone else, it might be challenging to reflect back what the person said while formulating a response. One option is to ask for time to think about it, as in the example above. If there isn’t time, then you can preface it with “without much time to think about this, I’d say…”, and give your best answer. I find if I’m truly present while listening, and trust in myself, I often give a pretty good response.

When you have the opportunity, you can share with the person in advance that you want to really stay focused and listen, which means you won’t be formulating your response until after they are finished. This sets the expectation up front.

Although it doesn’t come naturally to everyone (and our DiSC styles certainly play a role), we can practice thinking on our feet, which will exercise the muscle and make it easier when we need to respond more quickly. One way is by listening to a show and formulating quick responses. Back in my college days, my public speaking professor dissected the song “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” and as we drew our piece out of a hat, we had to stand and talk about it for five minutes. There are many ways you can find to practice. If it’s something you want to improve, it’s worth the effort.

These are just a few tips. I’d love to hear from others on what works for them! Share with us in the comments.


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