Most of us stink at listening. We tend to listen just enough to get the gist of what someone says before we begin to judge, rehearse our response, and then speak again.
The potential risks of this “psuedo” listening are many: misunderstandings, missed opportunities to connect, collaborate or learn, and a lack of trust can all arise when one—or both—conversational partners are only partially engaged. Whether in a personal or professional setting, effective communication requires active, mindful listening built on being present and open to the other person’s words and ideas.
So how can we become better listeners? Fortunately, says visual capture artist and Good for the Bees CEO Zara Stasi, there are simple steps we can take in advance of important conversations in order to prepare ourselves to be more present and engaged.
Stasi, who has worked with companies such as World Bank, the WNBA and Amazon Web Services, creates a visual guide of conversations, keynotes and meetings in real-time. Imagine a mural appearing on a wall-sized piece of paper as you speak or your group meets, complete with coded colors, icons and symbols. The final product is not only a graphical representation of what was shared, highlighting key points, takeaways and discoveries, but also it is a work of art that captures your interaction in a vivid, compelling manner.
Watch Stasi and you’ll see her listening intently, completely absorbed in the moment, following and documenting each speaker’s talking points and trains of thought. But her ability to stay present comes from her commitment to preparation and planning before the meeting occurs, something any of us can do. Here are four Preparation Principles and Conversational Cues derived from Stasi’s approach that you can use to prepare for your next interaction:
Preparation Principle #1: Understand the Purpose and Goal.
The first thing Stasi says is essential is knowing your purpose. “I try to get to the root of why these people are meeting,” she says. Without this basic understanding it is difficult to appreciate the focus and priority of what’s being said. “If a conversation doesn’t make sense or people are on completely different pages, my job is so much harder,” she explains.
Conversational Cue: Know your “why.” Be clear on the purpose and goal of the conversation before it begins. Ask yourself, “What do I want people to know, feel and do as a result of this message?”
Preparation Principle #2: Prepare a Plan.
While Stasi has a blank page to fill, she has to think ahead about what logical direction the communication might take. She has a rough idea of what the session may look like, thinking through the templates, frameworks, motifs, or structures she might employ. For instance, an all-day strategy session might have a very different visual plan than a one-hour town hall, or short brainstorming session. She may use the motif of a journey for the all-day meeting, while relying on the problem-solution-benefit structure for the town hall. Having a plan not only helps you package your communication in a logical manner, but it helps you consolidate your thinking.
Conversational Cue: Myriad communication frameworks and templates exist. One option is the “What? So what? Now what?” structure that allows you to identify your key idea, concept, or offering. You next explain why it is important, salient, and relevant to your audience, and conclude by explaining what comes next. Having a framework like this one at the ready lessens your cognitive burden of figuring out the best way to structure your messages. Once you know what you will say and how you will say it, you’ll be equipped to relax and become more present in the moment because you have a plan in place.
Preparation Principle #3: Don’t Over-prepare.
While she’s a big believer in doing her homework, Stasi also doesn’t overprepare. She doesn’t try to prep every icon or symbol in advance, or lay out all the details. She does sketch out some ideas, but “they’re very rough,” she says. Her goal is not to map out every element of the drawing in advance. “If I think too hard about it, if I do sketch the whole board out, it’s not going to be useful.” Her desire is to be present and respond to what’s happening, not to lock herself into a specific path. This is akin to going into a meeting or Q&A session with some pre-thought themes or stockpiled examples, but not memorized contributions and answers.
Conversational Cue: Over-preparing locks you into one way of communicating, and in some cases incorrectly makes you think that this is the “right” way to communicate your point. As a result, over-preparing can remove your ability to respond accurately to your audience. Some forethought instead allows you to know your big points and your general direction, but allows you to be nimble so that you can easily adjust to the needs of the moment. You leave room for coordination, happy surprises, and discoveries.
Preparation Principle #4: Look for Patterns by Knowing What Matters.
Not everything that’s said in a conversation or meeting is critical, and not every point makes it into Stasi’s drawings. Being able to separate the important elements from the fluff is a result of listening intently while synthesizing and recognizing patterns and priorities. Stasi likens it to a big word cloud; “How many times are people saying the same thing? That kind of elevates the importance and makes me know, I have to put it down somewhere,” she says. The next step is to dig into that word and unpack its meaning. Once she’s sensitized to the patterns and expected ideas that might come up, she can be present to the need to adjust and adapt her approach.
Conversational Cue: Like Stasi, you can prepare to look for important concepts and prioritized information in advance. You can train your brain to be on the lookout for certain ideas. In the moment of conversation, look for points that are repeated or emphasized. Reflect on what’s underneath the repetition, asking, “Why is this concept or issue important to this person? Why is this such a priority to them?” By recognizing the pattern and its likely deeper meaning, you’ll better understand the other person’s priorities and adapt to them.
Drawing—literally and figuratively—on the approach and best practices of a visual capture artist, we can learn to be better, more present listeners who can provide appropriate, connected, structured messages. As Stasi demonstrates, deep listening and connecting requires multiple levels of thinking, often simultaneously. Doing a bit of preparation beforehand will enable you to minimize your anxiety and give your conversational partners your most precious gift—your full attention.
Adapted and excerpted with permission from Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 26, 2023).