How good of a listener are you?
The Economist’s editorialist on management, Bartelby, opens this important topic by reminding us what our great philosophers and writers say. Hemingway wrote, “listen completely” and Greek philosopher Zeno said, “we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”
These maxims apply perfectly within a business context. Listening, rather than talking, makes your business more productive.
Who Better to Ask About Listening Than a Hostage Negotiator?
The Economist’s article cites research from Harvard Business Review that demonstrates employees who take part in listening circles–where they are allowed to speak in turn without interruption–have less anxiety and worked-related stress. We know that both of these are a hindrance to productivity, so why don’t we listen more as leaders? Why do we still insist on just telling our team what to do?
The article’s author reinforces this point by interviewing a hostage negotiator, Richard Mullender. After retiring, Mullender set up a company called the Listening Institute where he teaches good listening skills–which is much more than just nodding your head and maintaining eye contact. At EII Consulting we teach this and more to our clients. The best listeners think about what is being said and how it relates to the emotions, values, or facts behind the speaker’s words. Then, they ask to clarify it.
So, when someone says, “I was concerned,” you use active listening skills to paraphrase and encourage them to develop that thought more. In this case, your response to “I was concerned” is NOT to share an example of what you are concerned about that relates.
If you need clarification, restate their point as a statement, not a question. Questions interrupt the speaker’s train of thought and typically come across as your opinion trying to guide the discussion. Listen, don’t guide!
If you need to know what they were concerned about, simply state, “It seems to me you are afraid of X.” It does not matter if you are right or wrong. They will clarify it for you and go on discussing.
The information you uncover becomes fundamental to identifying how to help your direct report or teammate. How can you help reduce their concern if you don’t know what they are concerned about or its impact? This is a fundamental trait of a good leader.
Joke as we might about President Bill Clinton’s affairs and behavior, remember that he won elections by telling voters, “I feel your pain.” Note that this is a statement, not a question. Most other politicians do something similar, because it works. We, as voters, want to be heard just as much as your employees… so, listen to them.
Let the Speaker Speak
All of this leads to a corollary point within the article: To be a good listener, shut your mouth. If you are talking, you are not listening. Unless you need clarification on a point (such as the previous example), let the speaker speak.
Even if you are trying to persuade someone to do something, you first must understand and assess their beliefs, emotional state, and expectations. Once you know what is driving them, you can then meet them where they are and begin a discussion. They will also feel heard and be more receptive to your points.
If you do need to persuade, and you have kept your mouth shut long enough to gather the information needed, you may then ask a “what” or “how” question (never “why,” as it comes off as aggressive.) Such as, “What were you concerned about?” or “How did that affect your performance?”
The Goldilocks Balance: Not Too Much Listening, Not Too Little
This is one small example of how great leaders separate themselves from all the rest. But, beware… These ideas may seem very easy to understand. You’re probably thinking, “This is a piece of cake!”
But, truly ask yourself how well you do this. More importantly, measure it. You will likely be surprised at how often you drop the ball. I still do!
Developing this skill takes time, energy, and practice. You can listen too much. You can listen too little. This is a Goldilocks skill that requires practice, metrics, and feedback. The good news is, EII Consulting can help you work through any shortcomings and help you optimize your listening performance. If you’re interested in setting up a consultation, contact us.
By Ryan Sanders, Founder of EII Consulting