Listening

By: Jim Bruce
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Over the past years, we’ve written about the skill of listening several times.  (You can check them out at MOR Insights.)  Today, I want to return to that topic with some data.  Today’s Tuesday Reading is Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s essay What Great Listeners Actually Do which appeared on a recent HBR blog. 
 
Zenger and Folkman note that most of us think we are better listeners than the average person.  And, we believe that good listening comes down to doing exactly three things:  Not talking when someone else is speaking, letting people know you are listening through your body language and verbal sounds, and being able to repeat back what you have heard them say.
 
But, is this really the case?  Using data collected in conjunction with their company’s development program designed to help managers be better coaches, Zenger and Folkman identified a set of characteristics which identified the most effective listeners (the top 5%).  The result was four primary findings:
 
Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.  The best listeners seem to be those who periodically ask questions to promote discovery and insight.  They challenge old assumptions in a constructive way.  Asking a good question tells the speaker that you heard and comprehended the issue well enough to ask for additional information.  And, be careful not to interrupt or trample on their speaking.
 
Good listening includes interactions that build a person’s self-esteem.  Good listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party.  This doesn’t happen if the listener is passive or critical.  Good listeners help the other individual feel supported and convey confidence in them.  It is a safe environment where issues and differences can be discussed openly.  It’s not a contest to have a better idea.
 
Good listening is seen as a cooperative conversation.  Feedback flows smoothly between the two individuals with no defensiveness about what is said.  There is no competition.  Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree in the context of being helpful the listener but not in the sense of trying to win an argument.
 
Good listeners tend to make suggestions.  Good listening often includes providing feedback in a way that opens alternative approaches that might be considered.  This is somewhat counter-intuitive since we don’t generally appreciate someone jumping in and providing solutions.  (Zenger and Folkman think that acceptance here may have to do with the listener’s skill in making the suggestions or whether he or she is already perceived of as a good listener.) 
 
Think of these four findings as suggestions for improving your listening skills.  Hopefully, they will give you insight into how you as a listener can help amplify, energize, and clarify the speaker’s thinking in new and helpful ways.
 
And, do take some of the many opportunities you will have this week to listen and experiment with this new skill.
 
Make this a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .     jim
 
 
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

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