In business, in education and in any debate or argument, critical listening is often the natural place to go. It’s very powerful. It involves critical assessment of the other person’s message, often involving the little noise in your head giving a running commentary.
The following blog post is an extract from my book, How to be Heard.
Critical listening in business and leadership
In business, in education and in any debate or argument, critical listening is often the natural place to go. It’s very powerful. It involves critical assessment of the other person’s message, often involving the little noise in your head giving a running commentary. You know that little voice – the one that just said: “What little voice?” as you read this. If you have a particularly active inner critic, this will be a strong voice for you (and if it habitually criticises you, I hope you got a lot from the section on inner listening earlier in this book).
Of course, it’s valuable to assess and to be discerning in what you take on board so, in many conversations, critical listening is indispensable. In business, we quickly get used to listening for what we deem useful and discarding the rest; it’s not unlike panning for gold. We become quick to give our opinion, and we have a rating system constantly at work in our heads.
When is critical listening inappropriate?
However, even at work there are times when this is not desirable. I have seen many efforts at brainstorming founder because people could not switch off their critical heads and accept rule one of a brainstorm: “Every idea is acceptable.” It becomes very hard to switch off the critical filters.
If critical listening becomes your default position and you get stuck there, it will cause problems for you, especially at home, because it does not facilitate intimacy. When someone shares their pain or their fears with you, it can be very destructive to respond with a critique or a set of instructions, even if your intentions are of the best. That kind of managerial interaction, which works so well for practical matters, can be very problematic when applied to emotional communication.
How to switch of from critical listening
I suspect this is one major way in which the always-on nature of modern business is so threatening to our emotional wellbeing. Not only does it blur the lines and rob us of family time and focus, but it also forces us into critical listening at home. If you are reading work emails in bed, you are much less likely to be able to flip positions and respond tenderly to your partner’s fear about a challenge he or she is facing tomorrow: it’s far easier to stay in critical listening and give some practical advice or even dismiss the fear as irrational with a “Don’t be silly…” comment. When I take seminars with large groups from companies, I ask for a show of hands for who does email in bed. The proportion is now typically more than half.
I do urge you to avoid this practice. If you must do it, be prepared to consciously jump out of critical listening at any moment or your relationship is likely to suffer. People who get stuck in critical listening tend to find it hard to give unconditional affirmation. This is particularly sad for parents, because it robs them of heart connection with their children, not to mention creating young people with major self-worth issues. If nothing short of perfection is good enough or warrants any praise, the result will almost certainly be a child who is bent out of shape in some way, either suffering low self-confidence or grimly obsessed with perfection, and in either case probably emotionally repressed after being knocked back so many times.
The worst kind of critical listening moves into the other definition of the word – a tendency to find fault. That’s a doorway straight into condemning, the second of the Seven Deadly Sins…
For another post about conscious listening, check out The emotional barriers to listening.