The Discipline of Listening Well

Harvard Business Review has a great article on good listening and it doesn’t involve keeping your mouth shut:

We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference.  With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.

We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. We grouped them into four main findings:

Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks…

Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem

Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation…

Good listeners tended to make suggestions.

The article has much more detail, but these main points give you an idea of where they’re headed with their findings. In a nutshell it’s not about just sitting there, nodding your head and saying “Uh huh,” and more about actively listening, asking questions at the appropriate time and even providing feedback.

In this day and age of constant interruption and distraction it’s becoming increasingly rare to find those moments when you truly engage with another human being. Your phone rings in mid-conversation and you feel compelled to answer, email and text “pings” chime and you glance down to read them while someone is talking to you, your to-do list hovers in the background of your mind and draws your attention away from the conversation, etc. All of this gets in the way of effective, concentrated listening.

Sadly, the people with whom we allow the most interruptions are those who are most important to us; spouses, kids and co-workers are often cut off while we answer the call from the boss, client or prospect. Why is that? Is it because we know they aren’t going anywhere and thus can talk to us any time? Maybe, but that means we’re devaluing the minutes we spend with them because of a perceived wealth of future minutes and that’s a fool’s trade because those future minutes tend to have a way of never materializing.

I’m a terrible offender when it comes to this bad habit of not actively and effectively listening, but I’m making a concerted effort to change that. To that end I’ve developed some rules for myself that I’m hoping to get better at following. This isn’t a particularly extensive, or comprehensive list, but it’s a start:

  1. Never, ever answer the phone when someone is in front of you having a conversation. (I’m actually pretty good at this, likely because I hate talking on the phone). The only exceptions would be if not answering could lead to very serious consequences like losing your job, sleeping on the couch for a week or getting the cold shoulder from your kid for a month. If those are possibilities then you’re likely expecting that call so that leads to rule 1-A: If you’re expecting a call you should tell whoever you’re talking to that you’re expecting an important call before you even start the conversation. That way they can decide if they want to risk being interrupted or wait for a more opportune time to talk.
  2. Mute your mobile so that you don’t even see/hear alerts for email, texts, etc. while you’re talking to someone. (I’m okay at this, but I need to get better).
  3. At home, leave your phone on your bed stand or in a drawer so you pay attention to your spouse, kids, roommates, etc. (I go through stages with this one and want to get better at it).
  4. At work, leave your desk and talk while standing in the hall or meeting in the conference room or on other neutral ground, and while you’re at it leave your mobile on your desk. Your almost guaranteed to have a shorter, more effective conversation that’s beneficial to all parties involved.
  5. Pay attention. I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with this one. My mind wanders – it goes off into la-la-land and returns via To-Do List road – so I’m trying to trick myself by pretending that I’m going to be tested on what’s being talked about. Results are mixed so far, but I think I’m getting better.
  6. Do what my wife does. She’s a WONDERFUL listener. She remembers everything, offers feedback and opinions and is empathetic, almost to a fault. If I can channel just 20% of her ability I’ll be on the right track.

I wish I could offer up some simple, listicle-like solutions to better listening, but I think it’s a lot like losing weight – you just have to work on developing good habits and stick to the program. Before you know it you’re skinnier and more attentive, which I think most of us would agree is a good thing.

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