No One likes a Know-it-All: Listen to Understand, Not to Respond

Blog 1Ask yourself this question, and try to answer honestly: do you listen to respond, or do you listen to understand? When someone is talking, how often are you not really listening but rather just waiting for your chance to say what you know? How often are you thinking, “hurry up and finish, I’ve got something profound to say.” You’re not alone.

Improv 101

The key to improvisation is listening to understand. When you’re not listening to those around you, how can you respond in a way that truly adds value to the interaction? It’s the same no matter the situation, a client meeting, speaking with your spouse, or meeting someone new – in each of these interactions we have a choice in how we’re going to engage.

A common game used to develop improvisational listening skills is called “Mr. Know-It-All.” It helps people drop their agenda, listen, and focus—to be in the moment. I sometimes introduce this game in my presentations by asking for three volunteers to sit up front and face the audience. “Together, these people are Mr. Know-It-All,” I’ll say, “and can answer any question—but just one word at time.” To demonstrate, I’ll ask something like: “Why is the sky blue?” I’ll turn to the first person, then the next¸ and the next – each providing a word as they attempt to construct a sentence to answer the question.

Inevitably, each volunteer has formed some kind of plan – or agenda – in their mind for how they want to answer. However, when the player before them doesn’t say something that fits their agenda they get flustered and have to scramble for a response.

There’s a strong desire for us to not make ourselves look dumb; you don’t want to be caught unaware. As a result, you come up with a script or an idea before the person in front of you has even finished – or started in some cases! However, contrary to what you may be thinking, when you allow yourself to listen, you’ll naturally respond appropriately.

When the volunteers in the Know-It-All game let go and just listen to what the other person says, and then build off of it to make the sentence as accurate – it always works, and is often pretty funny. They begin to listen to understand, not just to respond. They drop their agendas. They stop trying to control how they want this thing to go.

It’s hard, we all want to be heard, we all have a desire to be important. Listening to understand forces you to put your agenda aside, listen to what the other person is saying, and pause to gather your thoughts or let the other person reflect is listening to understand. And wouldn’t you know…the person you’re talking with feels understood, appreciated and is more likely to engage further.

Learn more about how listening to understand, as well as other improve principles, can improve your career by visiting where you can download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.