Intent Listening — A Harmonizing Superpower

For an introduction to the harmonizing superpowers, please see my article, “Make Harmonizing Your Superpower”

What is intent listening and why is it a superpower?

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Stephen Covey’s statement provides assertive women the opportunity to be extraordinary by not only listening to understand, but also listening to find agreement. Intent listening helps you find the common ground between opposing views, and helps you isolate the point of difference (e.g., “It sounds like we both want to do ‘x’, but we disagree on ‘y’ ”). By finding points of agreement, the divide between you and others appears smaller, people feel more understood and less threatened, and thus people are more likely to consider your perspective.

When should I unleash this superpower?

Intent listening is very difficult – if it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be a harmony superpower. It defies the instinct of an assertive woman who has persevered throughout her career to have her voice heard and seriously considered. When asserting your view becomes louder, aggressive, or combative (yes, all the things that men can get away with most of the time), then it’s time to turn on your intent listening superpower.

How to I develop this superpower?

Intent listening is developed like any other extraordinary skill – through practice, practice and more practice. Here’s a brief how-to:

  1. Select a discussion in which you will practice “intent listening.” At first, choose a topic for which you don’t hold a strong opinion, allowing you to be more objective.
  2. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying to identify (a) key points of agreement, (b) key points of disagreement and (c) key assumptions of each party.
  3.  Pinpoint the most critical area(s) of disagreement and the associated assumptions.
  4. Move the conversation forward by summarizing the areas of agreement, and discussing the critical areas of disagreement and assumptions, e.g.:
  • “It sounds like we agree on A and B, but we disagree on X and Y. Is that correct?”
  • “I am making assumptions 1 and 2 to drive my conclusions whereas it seems like you are making assumptions 3 and 4 – is that correct?”
  • “I think the most critical area of disagreement is X and thus the most important assumption we have to debate are 1 and 4. What do you think?”

Note that each statement invites the participation of the other party, which allows you to listen intently in order to hone in on the disagreement and assumptions.

As the conversation unfolds, you may need to seek more information or simply buy yourself time to identify the critical discussion points. Keep the person talking with open ended questions such as “Tell me more about …”; “Help me understand why you think …”; “Can you expand on …”

For areas of disagreement, avoid “you” statements as they sound accusatory: “This is where you are wrong…”; “You are not being logical about …”. Turn those statements into “I” statements that draw the other parties into a discussion rather than a defense: “I am struggling with this aspect of your argument …”; “I am grappling with the rationale regarding …”, followed by “can you help me better understand?”

The process of intent listening is strengthened by a curious and flexible mindset. Approach the conversation as a facilitator that draws out all views, rather than as an advocate of your own views. Be curious, inquiring and investigative.

The objective of intent listening is not about getting your way or being right. It’s about understanding and identifying the areas on which you can compromise to formulate the “right enough” conclusion or way forward. “Right enough” conclusions are better than “right” conclusions if the latter alienates others. A “right enough” way forward will produce better results because all parties will feel they have a stake in its success.

Harmonizing through intent listening is demanding and arduous, and assertive women may feel that it is a surrender to sexism. However, even in the absence of sexism, intent listening is an extraordinarily valuable skill that fuels your own impact, promotes buy-in and leads to results.

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