Listening is a skill

Imagine a colleague approaches you at work. They tell you that they had a bit of trouble understanding the memo you sent out. As they speak, they hold direct eye contact and position their hands on their hips. How would you read this conversation? Is your colleague angry or just trying to be helpful?

It is useful to think about the above situation – and indeed all interpersonal conversations – through the lens of a concept called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP.

Neuro-linguistic programming was developed in the 1970s by behavioral experts Richard Bandler and John Grinder as the study of the relationship between the mind and language, both verbal and non-verbal. NLP attempts to show how the way people perceive information affects their behavior. The developers described NLP as “the study of the structure of subjective experience” and suggested that all human behaviors have a determinable structure. According to the tenets of NLP, when people speak, it gives an indication of how they think, and thus, the listener can determine how their conversation partner prefers to communicate.

NLP is essential in work environments that require collaboration among colleagues, as it helps individuals identify and process how their colleagues think during conversations, so that they can then respond by adapting their behavior.

There is an important audiovisual component to NLP. When someone ascribes visual words to a conversation, it gives the listener a clue that the speaker favors visualizing thoughts and ideas. For example, during a conversation, a person with a visual preference may say, “I see where you are coming from, but want to look at other options.” Their visual preference is apparent through their use of the words “see” and “look.” Similarly, a different person may say: “I hear you are having a problem and want to sound out a solution during our meeting next week.” The words “hear” and “sound” indicate a preference around listening and audio learning.

Another way to use NLP is reading the vocabulary a person uses to get an idea of their individual cultural preferences. If an individual uses a lot of personal pronouns in their speech, they may have an individualistic preference. For example, “I had my team on the right page and got my scheduling done in advance.” Conversely, if they use group pronouns, they may be collectivistic, as in, “We’re doing great on this project, and we should be done soon.”

There is also a behavioral component to neuro-linguistic programing. To return to the example given at the beginning of the article, if your colleague is speaking directly, holding direct eye contact and positioning their hands upon their hips, their NLP is probably one that favors direct and low-context communication. By adapting their posture, you can signal to your colleague that you take the conversation seriously and are investing the same degree of importance in it as they are.

NLP as a concept helps people with active listening, which allows them to read what their interlocutors are saying through a different lens, opening a window into their thought processes. This can lead to smoother and more effective communication.

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