How to host deeper connections with the Listening Triangle

This essay appears on my personal blog.

Lately, I’ve been hearing lots of friends and colleagues talk about slowing down a bit for the summer.

If it’s summer where you are, and you have the means, that’s an awesome choice

For example, if you’re in the Northeast of the United States of America the peaches are awesome right now…and such delicacies deserve to be savored slowly, far away from the glow of a screen.

(If you happen to be reading this essay months after I wrote it, don’t worry — every season is a great time to slow down.)

Slowing down doesn’t just mean taking time away from work, we can slow down during work, too.

But I don’t mean slacking off for a nap, although plenty of research says that’s an awesome idea.

Slowing Down the Conversation

What would it feel like to give an issue a bit more breathing room?

What would it feel like to solve one key challenge instead of tackling several challenges during a meeting?

What if we stretched out the creative process, just a bit, and came up with one more idea before we started choosing the best way forward?

What if we dropped in, slowed down, and really listened to someone, before moving the conversation forward?

Conventional Conversations move things forward

In conventional conversations, we often ask a question, hear the answer and then move on to the next questions we have in our pockets. We assume that the answer we heard is sufficient, and that it resembles what the person actually meant to say. Rapid fire! Let’s move this convo along, people!

The fact is, while folks can speak around 150 words per minute, we think at the rate of thousands of words per minute.

What does that mean in practical terms? No one can ever say all they mean to.

Plus, most of us, when we’re meant to be listening, also tend to think, even just a little bit about the next question, or how we’ll respond.

Active Listening is a great start.

Paraphrase and confirm! It’s like looping back and “double stitching” each thread of the conversation instead of moving forward in lockstep.

Active Listening Conversations go deeper

But the listening triangle goes one step even deeper!

The Listening Triangle

Triangulation is the process of finding out where you really are in a territory by taking a series of measurements. This approach, applied to listening, was recommended in an HBR article about managing a polarized workforce.

But this listening mental model works well when you want to cool down any heated conversation, or just slow things down for the summer.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Ask a real, powerful question.
  2. Actively listen, ie, paraphrase and confirm that you got it right.
  3. Re-ask. Don’t move on to another topic. Shift your question just a little bit to dive one step deeper and help triangulate your understanding of the person’s position.

I like to draw the Listening triangle like above, almost like a spiral, going inwards. Instead of moving the conversation forward, we’re taking it deeper, into the heart of the matter.

The authors of the HBR article suggest that the listening triangle can help you listen to understand, not just to respond, which can foster empathy and reduce polarized conversations.

This mode of relating to others can be transformative.

Slowing down your responses by re-asking can also ensure that your assumptions about someone’s beliefs are anchored in reality, not your biases or first reactions..

The listening triangle can also help someone feel really, really deeply heard.

I love to use the listening triangle in my coaching conversations.

If you take the listening triangle out for a spin this summer, let me know how it works out for you.

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Daniel Stillman

Daniel Stillman

Host of theconversationfactory.com and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.