Waiter! Please may I have a side order of active listening?

Like many people, I travel regularly for work and this gives me opportunities to stay in hotels, eat out and consume far too many calories in restaurants around the world. On my last trip, I checked in to a hotel and decided to eat in the restaurant there given the late hour of my arrival. I was greeted by very keen staff and shown to a quiet table with a view of the park. I ordered some food and, being British, tea. The waiter asked which kind of tea I wanted and I explained that I wanted some English breakfast tea (it’s not just for breakfast; don’t be fooled by the name). Before I could then explain how I wanted my tea served (with non-fat milk), the waiter walked away. When he returned in two shakes of a tea bag, I was pleased that he placed hot water and English breakfast tea on my table – two critical components of my request – but he had omitted something that was very important to me, the milk, and instead had chosen to bring a slice of lemon.

I like an efficient service process when I’m in restaurants and bars as I am typically either with people for a meeting or on my own and preparing for a business meeting. As a result, I am always appreciative of the need to focus on the people I am meeting or what I am doing, rather than the service. On this occasion though, the service quality was perhaps a little too efficient because the server had heard that I wanted tea and then decided how that was going to be served to me without actually listening to how I wanted it. All successful business owners know that meeting customer needs is critical, and when I work with clients I always aim to exceed their expectations because being seen to be going the extra mile is important to me and helps build trust in our relationship.

As humans, we are always receiving feedback from the environment we are in; our senses take in sights, words, sounds, smells and so on and we process this information through a series of filters that distort, delete and generalize the information we receive because, quite simply, there’s too much going on out in the world for us to make sense of everything. As a result, we turn the world outside into a much more manageable set of information and use our values, beliefs, attitudes and other prior experiences to shape our internal representations of what is going on in the world. When two people then interact and both speak about the same event, say a football match or a night out in a bar, they will remember different aspects of the experience and have attached different meanings to the parts that comprise the experience even though they were both part of the same thing.

In this case, my server had been very efficient and effective in seating me, making me feel welcome and taking my order, but it was at this last moment that he had made assumptions about my order that took us off track. And it’s a perfectly natural thing to do, but one that can cause issues. Let’s be clear, I have perspective here and I know that not having milk for my tea is not the end of the world. However, the principle holds true about many different situations. Perhaps you are working with a client and you have one understanding of a phrase or deliverable and your client sees that phrase or deliverable as an entirely different thing. Perhaps you are being interviewed today and you want to share your experience with your prospective employer; will he or she understand your experience in the way you intend it to be understood? Perhaps you are working on a project team and you are developing a plan; do each of your colleagues and team members know what each activity is in the plan or are you all seeing one thing and interpreting it differently? If you’re coaching someone and they talk about a situation they are facing, are you seeing the world through their eyes or are you making assumptions about the realities of their situation? Or maybe you are meeting with a prospective client today and you’re looking to sell them your product or service; if so, did you truly listen to their needs so you could match your service offering to their requirements or did you presume to know their needs based on your view of the world?

The more we engage with people, whether face to face or in telephone calls, video conferences or even by email and text, the more important it is for us to clarify our understanding. In his book, Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, coined the term "active listening”, which he explains as, “active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender.” This process, which can be very fast because it is accomplished by simply feeding back what the receiving party heard from the speaker, usually by re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, not only allows the receiving party to confirm what they have heard, but it allows both parties to confirm their understanding of the request or point, thereby reducing the possibility that assumptions and filters may distort the meaning.

In every day situations, whether in sales, interviewing, consulting, medical procedures, coaching and so on, active listening gives us the opportunity to check and confirm that what we heard is what was being said and to challenge any assumptions we might have about a situation, request or activity. And in the short space of time it takes to paraphrase what was said or asked, the understanding between the two parties is enhanced and the relationship between the two (or more) parties is improved, and that’s even before any action is taken.

Back at the restaurant, I explained to my server that I wanted non-fat milk with my tea and as I did he looked surprised. Clearly, in his mind, English breakfast tea was never intended to be served with milk. He then repeated my request, and I responded by nodding, smiling and explaining that he understood exactly what I wanted. And moments later, I had a great big jug of non-fat milk in front of me and that made an excellent cup of tea.

Rob Whitfield is the CEO and Founder of One Brit, No Bull, a coaching and corporate training company based in Los Angeles and operating worldwide. Rob can be contacted here or on (+1) 518 9NO BULL.

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As well as being an experienced management consultant and energetic public speaker, Rob Whitfield is a certified Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a certified Master Coach and a certified Master Practitioner of Hypnotherapy and Time Line Therapy. No Bull.