A high-intensity listening workout

Courtesy Luke Lawreszuk/sprayedout.com

Tabata workouts — very short, incredibly intense workouts — are all the rage right now. In classic form, a Tabata workout is 20 seconds of high intensity work followed by 10 seconds off, repeated 8 times. The formula came exercise-science professor Izumi Tabata’s work with the Japanese speed-skating team. While an amateur athlete’s Tabata workout really doesn’t need to use this exact formula, what it does require is very intense bursts of physical activity and relatively shorter rests, repeatedly. The major benefit and the reason people are so excited is the excellent physiological results from these relatively short workouts.

Could there be such a thing as a Tabata workout for listening? In the spirit of exercise, here is a thought exercise on what such a listening workout might look like. The benefits are enticing: becoming a better listener through short intense practices rather than a long, slogging, perhaps inefficient effort.

Applying the methodology first requires some goal-setting. Intensely practicing the wrong thing doesn’t help. So here are a few thoughts on what a hypothetical Tabata workout might look like for lawyers, or any professional interested in an intense listening workout.

The “workout” below comprises five segments, with ten intense minutes per segment, to target some tough aspects of listening. If the average attention span is five minutes (and that is a 2013 number so perhaps too high), then these ten-minute segments really are intense, especially if done sequentially with breaks for an approximately one-hour workout. Thoughts on other, better “Tabata listening” segments are certainly welcome in the comments or by e-mail.

1. Being present

To do this segment, you need an in-person conversation partner to talk in detail about a topic for ten uninterrupted minutes. If you want to really “feel the burn” in this workout, the topic should be something you aren’t actually interested in, perhaps an esoteric hobby or ERISA (apologies to ERISA lawyers). Tell your conversation partner the premise and ask him or her to talk, talk, talk for those ten solid minutes.

Put away phone, pen, paper, and any other distractions. Maintain a comfortable level of eye contact. You’re not trying to remember what the person is saying, help the person, or chime in with your story. It is unfriendly and essentially impossible to use no body language at all, but try not to interject even with encouraging sounds like “um-hmm.”

The only two requirements are being present in the conversation, and making the conversation partner know you are present. If that person is distracted by you or thinks you are distracted, you failed. Start the segment over.

2. Remembering

This next segment engages the memory aspect of listening. Many models of listening such as Professor Judi Brownell’s HURIER model emphasize “remembering” as an integral part of effective listening. Think of Dorrie in the movie Finding Nemo: great person (if a person were an animated blue fish), but not a great listener (due to her lack of short-term memory).

The point of this segment is to strengthen your memory circuits when listening. You need something to listen to for another ten minutes. It could be live or recorded such as a TED talk, CLE webcast, or YouTube clip. During the ten minutes, listen intensely. Take no notes.

And then, as soon as time is up, write down everything you can remember from what you just heard, as close to verbatim as you can. Don’t delve into your own reactions or interpretations; those are not the right kind of memories for these purposes. In fact, responding with one’s own reaction may disguise poor listening caused by lack of attention or memory.

This is an exercise where the 20-10 Tabata proportion could be quite useful: After the ten minutes of talk time, spend a full five minutes trying to remember and write down what was said. Don’t do anything else during that five minutes even if you’re sure you’ve remembered everything you can possibly remember. Giving up too soon would shortchange the workout.

3. Active listening

The hallmark of active listening is accurately paraphrasing back the statements of your conversation partner to demonstrate that you are listening. For this segment, ask a conversation partner to talk for ten minutes about a topic of interest and to intentionally pause at natural stopping points. At each pause, paraphrase back what you just learned. Then add a simple encouraging cue such as “Go on.”

Even if you aren’t interested in the topic or have the most amazingly relevant story to share about what he or she just said, don’t do anything but paraphrase back and cue the conversation partner to keep speaking. At the end, ask that person for feedback, particularly whether he or she felt that you understood the information accurately.

4. Listening to a jerk

Many lawyers participate in conversations where the other person’s statements are wrong, misleading, frustrating, seemingly disingenuous, and perhaps even dangerous. Listening effectively while angry is one of the hardest things to do. Thus it is perfect for a Tabata workout.

Find a friend with whom you strongly disagree on a topic. Ask the friend, for purposes of this segment, to discuss that topic in very strong terms for ten minutes. Ideally the discussion will involve over-the-top statements and some ad hominem attacks.

The listening challenge is to steady yourself. Breathe. Hold your body language in place and try to keep it receptive to the conversation. Maintain eye contact and try not to use negative facial expressions such as pursed lips.

And use the same active-listening techniques practiced in the prior workout. That means rephrasing what you are hearing. Even if you disagree. Even if it’s a personal attack. Even if you would never voluntarily paraphrase such a thing in a litigation setting because of the transcript. The idea here is stressing the listening and emotional circuits to strengthen them.

5. Listening to yourself

You don’t need a conversation partner for this one. Sit quietly and comfortably with no distractions. Just listen to yourself for ten minutes. What thoughts and feelings you experiencing? Don’t stop and make a note. Just try to stay in tune with your own inner dialogue.

This is a form of mindfulness meditation. Jeena Cho and others are doing amazing work in promoting mindfulness among lawyers. Seeking constant input and distractions may serve as a kind of dopamine loop or numbing behavior, and therefore being mindful may be the most difficult workout of all. In fact, Jeena’s interview with Chris Bradley of the Lawyerist makes the same workout analogy suggested here: “Just like you can practice running a marathon by regularly running, you can build up your mental resilience by having a regular meditation practice.”

Conclusion: Physiologically and psychologically, real Tabata workouts work because they are intense. With this proposed “Tabata workout for listening,” your ears won’t be sore, but your brain may be exhausted — as well as stronger and more resilient for your next real-world listening challenge.

5 thoughts on “A high-intensity listening workout

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    Once again, your blog is so original, the box is out of the box. I suggest your blog to all the law firms I know.

  2. […] Some posts draw more on my journalism background, like these profiles of lawyers dealing with hearing loss. Other posts are more scholarly in nature, like this exploration of cognitive bias. And sometimes I just try to be creative, like this “Tabata workout” for listening. […]

  3. I love this one. To me, by teaching this skill, you are not only helping people as lawyers and law professors–you are teaching them a skill that can enhance their lives overall. –Cathren Koehlert-Page

  4. Thanks for your comment, Cathren! The professional *and* personal benefits of good listening are very motivating to me in working on the blog. And so are comments/support from great lawyers and great communicators such as you and Laurie. Many thanks!

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