Behaviour change – is it really about just improving skills?

Too often when a behaviour you want is not occurring the default position is to see it as a problem of skill. If we just build ours, or others abilities, then the behaviour will occur.

Let’s use this logic to explore improving the behaviour of listening. Is listening to someone about the ‘skills’ of listening or is it the desire to want to listen that makes the difference?

In workshops I sometimes run a a very simple listening exercise that gets participants to actually feel what it is like not to be listened too. People pair up, and one of them is tasked with talking about something they are “passionate about“. The other is tasked with enthusiastically listening. At this stage of the exercise, you can feel the energy, and hear the volume in the room go up.

However, half way into the exercise, I quietly tell the listener to stop listening, start looking bored and disinterested, and completely break rapport. It is really a sight to see how quickly the mood in the room changes. Volume drops, frustration grows and some cases the conversation stops.

This exercise takes not being listened too from being a purely rational/logical thing (i.e. “I know that not being listened too isn’t nice“) to one where they actually feel the anger, frustration and almost diminishing sense of self worth that comes when you are not being listened too.

After the exercise I do a de-brief and one of the questions I ask is; “What do you think is more important when you listen – your ability to listen, or your desire to listen?” You can see people have this light bulb moment as they realise it is not the ability side of listening that they are struggling with, it’s the motivation to want to listen in the first place.

When asked they can all tell you what you need to do to be able to listen better, from a skills perspective, i.e. mirror body language, lean forward, make eye contact, avoid distractions etc. etc.

However, these things only become useful if you want to listen in the first place. People do these things naturally when they are motivated to want to listen to the other person. Listening, really listening to someone, is an issue of motivation first and foremost. Once I want to listen to you, then my skills and abilities to listen can really kick in.

We therefore need to challenge ourselves to not believe that the way to change a behaviour is simply to focus on improving skill. If there isn’t the desire to change the behaviour in the first place, improving someone abilities won’t make a lot of difference.

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