A recent article in the New York Times draws a comparison between the physiological aspects of hearing and listening. In brief the author, neuroscientist Professor Seth Horowitz, says that the process of hearing works from our ears to an area in the brain which is automatically able to register and then tune out background noise. Listening, he says, is different; when our attention is grabbed the electrical impulses from our ears take a pathway to a different area of the brain, associated with computation. At a basic level this allows our defense mechanisms to fire up. We describe this as being startled - and this overrides the background noise and allows us to focus on what we are hearing and process it accordingly. That's listening!
We find it more and more difficult to actively listen because of the overload of background noise which we hear (just stop reading and describe to yourself what you can hear right now - your computer humming maybe? Distant traffic? The TV in the next room?) The hearing pathway is so active at tuning out the yada yada of everyday life that the skill of listening is in danger of being lost.
His interesting conclusion is that we need to improve our listening skills, and we can do that with some simple activities which train our brain to use the listening pathway more effectively. Playing new music on the MP3 player when out for a jog or at the gym, rather than listening to the old favorites; becoming more aware of changes in the timbre and emotional undercurrent of the words of your partner or children or colleagues, being curious when sounds from a familiar source (the dog?, the washing machine?) are different from those we expect.
It's obvious that listening skills are important to negotiators. For example in recognizing words which are indicators of flexibility - 'We would like…….', 'somewhere in the region of…..', and so on. The skilled negotiator goes further. Why was a particular form of words used? What was the relevance of the unusual inflection in the voice of the speaker? Why a hesitation when the response should have been easy and instant? One great technique which good negotiators use is to ask the speaker to repeat a statement which is recognizable as being significant in the negotiation; for example a proposal or counter-proposal. Listening to the original and the repeat very carefully, spotting any differences in language or inflection, and then being curious about these differences will reveal information about priorities, motives and power which can be game-changers.
So listen up!
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