When brainstorming titles for our book, we semi-jokingly considered calling it Shut up! (Or a version of that with expletives). While it wasn’t a serious title contender, the message was and still is essential.
When time-starved, it’s natural to want to move things along, get to the point, be efficient. Yes, one way to save minutes is to simply limit how long we allow people to speak to us. We’re all guilty, it's not easy to remain quiet and attentive. But, even if---by some miracle—we accomplish an interruption politely, what opportunities do we miss by cutting people off?
Actually, there are several reasons to pay attention and let someone else talk.
1. The first thing someone says is rarely what matters most. Their initial statement is usually an automatic one. It takes a little unpacking to make room for someone’s best thinking. By pausing and listening (and not interrupting), we get progressively better information. This gets us to the real issue more directly and prevents misinterpretations and rework.
2. In a tense situation, talking moves a person from emotional to rational. Brain studies using functional MRI show that when a person verbally labels and expresses their emotion, the fight-or-flight region of the brain becomes less active and higher-level reasoning becomes more active.(1) So, when a coworker experiences frustration, disappointment, anger or some other emotion, listening will help them move beyond reaction to rational more quickly.
3. In disagreements, being heard leads to a more favorable impression of those with an opposing viewpoint. For example, in areas of cultural conflict (such as between racial and religious groups), the ability to share a personal perspective with the other group (‘being heard”) resulted in a more positive impression of members of the other group. Interestingly, others who wrote about their perspective, but were not heard, did not experience the same change. (2)
The value of listening in each of these instances reflects the power of being present to another person’s discovery. It has value for us--- getting better information, shifting toward problem solving, or having them feel more positively about our perspective --- and for them.
Just last week, a colleague said: “When I heard myself say it out loud, I realized what I needed to do.”
Simply by having someone listen attentively as she described a stressful situation, she discovered her own solutions. A week later she reported being less stressed, more hopeful, and feeling in control. For her, being listened-to was a powerful quality-of-life intervention.
The next time you are tempted to cut off a conversation, jump in, or interrupt, consider what you might be missing if you do. If you can spare a few minutes, shut up and listen.
Leiberman MD et al. Putting feelings into words; affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in aesponse to affective stimuli. Psychological Science. 2007; 18(5): 421-428.
Bruneau EG, Saxe HR. The power of being heard: The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict. J Experimental Soc Psychology. 2012