When we listen to another person, we interpret their words. We can never access what the other person is saying in a truly neutral way. Instead, our preconceived notions, experiences and expectations affect what we hear. That’s why listening is not just receiving, it’s also verifying our interpretations.
There are two reasons to verifying your interpretation. One is, as the name suggests, verifying if your understanding of what was said is anywhere close to what the speaker meant. The other is to express respect and caring towards the speaker. Your message is so important to me that I want to figure out if I’ve interpreted it correctly.
There’s a simple tool for verifying interpretations: naming. Hostage negotiator Chris Voss calls this labelling. I’ve learnt this tool from hostage negotiator Richard Mullender and use his term for it. Naming means that the listener names what they heard by saying, “Sounds like…” Some alternative phrases are, ”seems like”, “looks like” and “feels like”.
Voss recommends that you leave out any pronouns referring to yourself. The difference between “To me, it sounds like…” and “Sounds like…” is of course that the first one emphasises the listener. But this isn’t about me, it’s about you.
What can you name?
The beauty of naming as a technique is that you can use it to verify almost anything. When you’re listening to someone and make an assumption based on what they’re saying, you can simply present it to them when you get a good opportunity:
- ”Sounds like you’re frustrated by your colleague’s behaviour.”
- ”Looks like you’d like greater challenges in your work.”
- ”Seems like you felt that decision was unjust.”
- ”Feels like you’ve got some kind of axe to grind against me.”
And you don’t have to get it right. When you’ve named something, it’s better to stay silent and let the other person consider your words. That’s because usually they’ll either confirm or correct your interpretation: “Not an axe really, but I did feel you were a bit harsh at the meeting yesterday.”
Naming can be used to verify even big assumptions, because it doesn’t claim that anything is true. “Sounds like” doesn’t argue that something is true but that it sounded like that to the listener. It doesn’t judge or evaluate, just investigates. It also gently invites the speaker to clarify their meaning.