Skills and Values

Mentoring A to Z series blog: active listening, or as Ernesto Sirolli would say, "shut up and listen"

The fourth in my series of daily blogs leading up to National Mentoring Day on 27th October. Listening is the highest form of communication and is the single most useful skill a mentor uses. Here are some thoughts and tips on active listening and I’ll be mentioning what Ernesto has to say towards the end.

Mentors need to listen at a higher level of listening than the average conversation. In my mentor training workshops we explore the different levels of listening and why mentors listen at level two, i.e. active listening.

If I am listening intending to reply, my mind chatter (self talk) is taking over and I am actually focusing on myself. If I listen with the intent to understand, I am listening at a higher level and am focused on the mentee. My inner voice has shut up.

The more anyone analyses their listening habits and begins to try to listen at a higher level, the more it is clear that it takes practice and skill.

Tips for getting better at listening

  1. Assess your listening habits, get feedback from others and find out which habits are good ones and which ones need working on. For example, do you switch off and start to process your reply before the mentee has finished, or perhaps you’ve decided you know the answer? Do you always need to have the last word? Does your mind wander in a longer conversation or are you easily distracted? Do you listen to the end with empathy and courtesy or do you butt in?

  2. Learn how to ‘read’ body language if you are mentoring face to face. We tend to fall into unconscious assumptions and beliefs based on our own way of making sense of messages. In other words, we skip to making meaning using our own subjective experiences. The thing for mentors to master is therefore also staying in objective reality when observing non verbal signals.

  3. Practice. Like any skill, conscious practice increases our capability.

  4. Focus on listening well:

  • Learn to use your thinking time wisely. Train your mind to be a scanner to identify the theme of the other person’s message, and check your assumptions by asking questions.

  • Become an observer. Avoid becoming ‘one who speaks and listens to him/herself speak’.

  • Listen with an open, conscious mind. We can have a tendency to resist ideas that are of no personal interest to us. Open your mind and focus on what the person is saying, even if you think you’ve “heard this before”.

  • Be aware of your personal prejudices. Guard against the tendency to exercise emotional censorship by ignoring or blanking out things or veering to unconscious bias. We delete and distort messages to fit our own world view unconsciously.

Listen and watch a role model Ernesto Sirolli

I was lucky to hear a talk by the great Ernesto Sirolli at an awards event two years ago. His award was a lifetime achievement award for services to enterprise. It wasn’t until I got home later and searched for him online that I discovered his TED Talk.

Not only is he hugely insightful about enterprise and aid work, but also at a fundamental level about how we communicate with people in any circumstances. Ernesto’s first principle of helping someone is respect. His ‘rules of engagement’ were simple from the start. He decided to only respond to people, not initiate -

  • Never initiate anything

  • Never try to motivate anybody

  • Become a servant of the local passion

  • Become a servant of the local people who have a dream to become a better person

    He then goes on to describe what this looks like:

  • You shut up and listen

  • You never arrive in a community with any of your own ideas

  • And you sit with the local people. Not in offices, but meet them where they are at/comfortable, such as at a cafe, pub, etc. This has added benefit of eliminating additional infrastructure.

  • Become friends

  • Find out what that person wants to do. The most important thing is passion. If that person doesn’t want to do it, what are you going to do?

  • That passion will be for their own growth. This is the most important thing.

  • Then and only then do you step in and offer to help them find that knowledge.

  • Because nobody in the world can succeed alone.

Conclusion

This is not about trying to read some system or methodology across to mentoring. For me it is taking what he says as a philosophy for listening in any situation. Mentors can learn BIG from this. Shut up and listen!

What is it for you about Ernesto’s approach you can apply to mentoring?

I do something very, very difficult. I shut up and listen to THEM”.
Ernesto Sirolli

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