by Nanci E. Luna Jiménez
“I was thinking yesterday that I would love to be able to talk something through with someone who will listen and not react, respond, question, comment, compare, compete, and if they are judging would keep it to themselves…Now that I have learned the value of [Constructivist Listening], I can see how profound it can be.” I received this email from a workshop participant just yesterday. Lillian’s mentor, Dr. Erica Sherover-Marcuese described [constructivist] listening as “the most powerful political tool you’ll ever learn.” Why is constructivist listening so transformative as a practice? What is unique about its method and impacts?
Simply defined: constructivist listening is a timed listening activity where the speaker and listener have the same amount of time in each role, speaker and listener. You need only 4 things to put this tool into practice: 1) a countdown timer; 2) uninterrupted time (no specified amount. Just divide whatever amount of time you have into the number of speakers); 3) a designated speaker for their allotted time; 4) a designated listener for their allotted time(s)*.
*If you have more than 2 people, you’ll have more than one turn as listener. Everyone, however, only has one turn in the speaker role.
Everywhere I turn, the message: “be a good listener,” “become a better listener” or “good leaders know how to listen” is reinforced. I recently returned from a mid-career leadership program for diplomats and others working in the field of international relations, and I cannot recall how many times listening was emphasized as a critical success factor. Almost every list of essential leadership qualities includes listening. And with this mandate, we decide to listen more. Nonetheless, the common misperception persists: I’ll become a better listener by listening more.
Listening more doesn’t make us better listeners. It makes us quiet. It makes us protected (from revealing anything about ourselves). It makes us resentful. It makes us exhausted. And, worse yet, by listening more we never really learn how to become better listeners! Just because we do it more doesn’t mean we are better as it. Participants in my workshops continue to be surprised that the key to becoming a better listener is actually being listened to more.
Constructivist Listening is the only listening method that I am aware of where everyone benefits from being listened to. Constructivist Listening is the only practice where we have the very experience that we are wanting others to have—being listened to—and have the experience of listening modeled for us.
1) Is for the speaker. As the speaker, I experience uninterrupted, confidential, non-judgmental attention. I make meaning for myself, trusting my own mind to learn from my experiences.
2) Gives space for healing. With the uninterrupted attention of a dedicated listener, feelings that have confused me, compelled me, or fortified me and whatever position I am justifying, finally have an outlet. With the emotional healing or discharge, I can re-think or assess the experiences as distinct from my feelings of the experience.
3) Deepens trust. I take risks to be authentic, to share my fears, judgments, and vulnerabilities with other human beings. In the process, I am building and deepening my relationships, expanding my circle of trust.
4) Encourages me to examine my own perceptions—without having a listener “collude” with them. Listening with the knowledge that I am completely powerful, that others are completely good, and that no one is “out to get me” offers a perspective that interrupts my need to justify disconnection or separation. Instead this tool nudges me to shift my perspective to one of connection.
5) Makes me a better listener! By being listened to, I make space, clear out distractions from own stories, that would prevent me from being really present with someone else’s experiences. I have less need to compare or offer advice. I listen to their experiences as unique—not as an extension of or parallel to my own.
The guidelines are simple:
- Listen. Only listen. Don’t ask questions or interrupt the speaker for their entire allotted time—even if the speaker runs out of things to say! The listener continues to listen until the timer goes off.
- Give undivided attention and eye contact. We are out of practice of doing one thing at a time, given the number of distractions, overstimulation and expectations to multi-task. This practice asks you to refocus and to keep your eyes on the speaker for their full time.
- Keep confidentiality. Whatever the speaker shares during their turn remains confidential. This means that if you are the second speaker you wouldn’t refer back to anything the first speaker shared—since this violates the confidentiality guideline. It also means that when the time is over you wouldn’t offer advice or give your opinion of the situation. Once the timer goes off, it’s over. Nothing to say, nothing to do. You’ve already done what is required of you—you listened!
If you haven’t tried this practice yet, give it a go. Ask someone to join you in a Constructivist Listening dyad and let me know how it goes. You can start with 5 or 10 minutes each. You can go longer as you increase your capacity. If you have already learned this skill, consider finding or training a buddy to join you.
Happy listening everyone!