In the last blog post, I discussed what active listening is and what it isn’t and how to build empathic listening as a skill. In this blog post, I’ll look at the search for meaning in someone’s language. But before we get into that we need to discuss how language works.
Language is inherently metaphorical
In essence, leadership and relationship building is a talking game. All interventions rely on the use and power of your language. Even when you choose to use silence as a tool to communicate.
It is hard to think of language as something that has evolved from a simpler origin. But there was a time where our language ability wasn’t as comprehensive as it is now. Language didn’t evolve to express ideas and the complexity of your internal experience.
It started out as the language of blood and bone, to explain bi-directional relationships between objects. There was a time in the evolution of language when it was hard to express thoughts and feelings. Becuase the words didn’t exist to explain how you felt.
The word ‘understanding’ was literally “standing under,” while delivering a message under a king sitting on a high throne. There was no word for the concept of a feeling. The word is a metaphorical extension of the function of your hand and what it does.
When you start to see how much of our language is built upon metaphors, it’s hard not to notice metaphors everywhere.
“I’m banging my head against a brick wall” is overtly metaphorical, no one hearing this would rush to call the emergency services on your behalf. But they would know that you are expressing a deep frustration about your current situation.
But metaphors don’t have to be that obvious. Often our metaphor use can be subtle because they are embedded within our everyday language. The phrase ‘I see what you mean’ implies that understanding something is like vision. Or ‘the deadline is fast approaching’ implies that time is a moving object. We easily miss these embedded metaphors due to their everyday familiarity.
Why is this important to active listening?
Becuase language has evolved to represent our cognitive processes then how we use our language can reveal a great deal of our internal experience. The metaphors that we use, the context and the structure of our language all contribute to communicating complex internal meaning. Your job is to help uncover that meaning through careful listening and intelligent questioning.
When you listen to people talk, they will organise their stories into experiences, thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Of course, people don’t tell their stories in a compartmentalised way. They will weave it all together into a single narrative, consider this example of someone talking about frustrations at work.
My boss shouted at me for spending too much time on the project and getting too much into the detail [An experience]. He then spent half an hour talking to me on the phone about how little time he has to fix these issues, which I thought was pointless [a thought and point of view]. I then shouted at him [a behaviour], my blood was boiling [a strong emotional metaphor for anger] why can’t he see that I’m doing my best? [A thought]. Now I don’t know what to do, and I keep going round in circles [a metaphor for feeling stuck in a situation].
Using a listening framework you now know a lot more about how the situation has affected the person. Then you can ask questions to uncover more details, and you can start to do some thoughtful processing on what you hear.
Of course, you are a human speaking to another human, so the goal isn’t to go overboard into an analysis of every detail that you hear. But effective listening helps you as a leader, parent, friend or partner discover the meaning that can contribute to solving problems, better collaboration, motivating others and stronger relationships.
Spend some time listening to other people’s conversations and dialogues, see if you can use your listening framework to identify parts of their stories. You may find that you notice more metaphors, decisions, thoughts and points of view that you normally hear.