Nothing causes bad decisions in organizations as often as poor listening. It often makes the difference between profit or loss; between a cohesive team or a fractured one; between a long career or a short one. Countless managers are told on their performance reviews to “become a better listener.” But that’s more easily said than done.
Bernard T. Ferrari, adviser to some of the nation’s most influential executives, has seen first hand why listening isn’t a soft skill — it’s the most powerful tool at any business person’s disposal. He makes a compelling case that anyone can improve from a mediocre listener to a power listener. It just takes a commitment to practice some new skills and habits.
Anyone can learn how to shape and focus a conversation, make others feel respected, stay focused on what’s really important and uncover the hidden pieces of information that can change everything.Don’t assume that power listening will take more time than your old listening style. On the contrary, you’ll waste far less time in unproductive exchanges. You’ll more easily sort through the informational chaos coming at you. You’ll stop rehashing the same conversations over and over. Your decisions will be wiser and more effective. Perhaps best of all, you’ll develop the reputation as someone “easy to talk to” — one of the greatest compliments for any leader.
Here are some highlights from the book
When someone talks about a meeting they’ve attended, or recounts a conversation they’ve had, they’ll often say something like, “At that point, I stopped talking for a moment. It was good to catch my breath and rest for a bit.” It’s an interesting comment, because it creates the impression that talking involves more effort than listening. In fact, just the opposite should be true. This misinterpretation — that listening is somehow equivalent to resting — leads people to believe that listening is a passive, rather than an active endeavour. From that false premise naturally flows the assumption that listening can be a time waster, rather than an effective means of advancing the ball.There are four major reasons to view good listening in the business setting as a critical activity, and a strenuous one at that:
1. Listening is purposeful. A disciplined business person enters a conversation with a clear understanding of what the conversation needs to accomplish.
2. Listening requires control. Even when you’re on the receiving end of a communication, you need to steer and filter the incoming information in order to accomplish your purpose.
3. Listening requires total focus and engagement. When you listen with intent, you must bring a heightened awareness to the conversation so that you can formulate the right questions, and generate the necessary interjections and interruptions to advance the conversation productively.
4. Listening is the front end of decision making.It’s the surest, most efficient route to informing the judgments you will need to make.
Highly developed listening skills increase your focus and sense of control. You will see the change in your own performance and productivity. More important, good listening skills will enable you to bring forth more fully developed ideas from the people around you. In the best of all worlds, it can facilitate streamlined analysis, more focused planning and more sure-handed decision making .To improve your listening skills, you must first figure out exactly what is keeping you from seeking and hearing the information you need. Here are six of the more common archetypes of bad listeners:
- The Opinionator. At the heart of an Opinionator’s problem is the tendency to listen to others really only to determine whether or not their ideas conform to what the Opinionator already knows to be true.
- The Grouch. Whereas the Opinionator’s listening is limited by his belief that his ideas are right, the Grouch is blocked by the certainty that your ideas are wrong.
- The Preambler. Television pundits have become the very embodiment of the poor-listening archetype, the Preambler. The Preambler’s windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches, often designed to box his conversation partner in. The Preambler uses this questioning technique to steer the conversation, send out a warning, or to produce a desired answer, as if the dialogue had been scripted.
- The Perseverator. The Perseverator talks too much, in the way the Preambler does, but presets difficulties that are more subtle but no less confounding. The Perseverator may appear to be engaged in productive dialogue, but if you pay attention, you might notice that he’s not really advancing the conversation. As often as not, he’s actually editing on the fly, fine-tuning what he is saying through constant reiteration.
- The Answer Man. Everyone likes to be the problem solver. An extreme version of this is the Answer Man. This is the person who starts spouting solutions before there is even a consensus about what the challenge might be, signaling that he is finished listening to your input in the conversation.
- The Pretender. The Pretender isn’t really interested in what you have to say. Maybe he’s already made up his mind on the subject; maybe he’s distracted by other matters; maybe he has to put on a show of listening for political reasons. Whatever the reason, we’d all be better off if he would drop the pretense.
You are likely a good listener at times. However, if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize that many of these archetypes of bad listening apply to you at different times and in different situations. You might be a Grouch on certain subjects or at different moments in the business cycle, but act more like a benign Pretender in other circumstances. You need to be able to recognize the behavior of each of these types, in yourself as well as in others, as the first step toward improving your listening skills and raising the overall level of communication and decision making in your organization
I’ve observed that the best listeners in the business environment are able to access and utilize a handful of powerful problem-solving techniques more readily and more often than their peers. First, they are acutely aware of everything that their idiosyncratic filing system already contains or needs to contain. They move quickly to fill in the missing pieces of information, either from other areas of their stored memory or from an external source.
Second, they rapidly shuffle and recombine any or all of the stored information, constantly adding to the options and alternatives available for consideration. This compare-and-contrast technique, allowing them to dismiss a progression of inferior options, makes good decisions more likely. The process of comparing and contrasting allows leaders to distill the choices down until only the best options remain.
Leaders can then assess these options using a third technique. During the Renaissance, in Italy in particular, when patrons, magistrates or church officials had to select an architect or artist for an important project, they occasionally employed the principle of paragone, which translates literally as “comparison.” Works of art would be placed next to each other so that their relative merits could be weighed. What makes paragone particularly effective in the business world is that even though it involves comparing two efforts or two proposals side by side, it is not necessarily intended to force a simple either-or decision between the two. The assumption is that each of the options has value, so the observer –– that is, the decision-maker –– can take the best elements of each, and combine them into an entirely new option. In the best circumstances, the amalgam that results could have advantages over either of the two original options on its own.
You can think of the fourth approach to problem solving as the natural product of combining the first three techniques. The best business listeners I’ve observed –– not coincidentally, some of the most effective business leaders as well –– have honed their ability to call up an array of option sets at any decision point in their operation. Furthermore, they embrace the opportunity to test however many option sets are necessary before making any decisions. And they do some of this testing out loud through discussion with their colleagues. These executives understand the dangers of jumping too quickly to a point solution before test driving all the viable alternatives.
On occasion, this process of developing and comparing options falls short of surfacing a clear favourite. In such instances, the absence of an obvious choice may indicate that, for some reason, the timing isn’t right for making a decision. Even in the fast-moving and fluid business environment, your first decision may be about whether or not a decision needs to be made and acted on at all or, alternatively, whether it needs to be made now or later. Delaying a decision can test the mettle of even the best of executives.
Changing Your Organization Through Listening
Not only can the quality of your listening determine your own individual performance, but it can also shape that of your organization.Because it influences the performance of each individual, a business’s culture is critical in determining how well a business performs in the collective. Yet what is culture actually built on? How does it evolve within an organization? At its essence, a corporation’s culture is really the sum of all the many hundreds and thousands of personal interactions between its members. Face-to- face conversations, discussions, presentations, debates and meetings –– these are the building blocks of culture.
Though cultures evolve organically more often than by design, there is no doubt that they are shaped, in large part, by company leaders. Managers set the standards within their organizations through their interactions with others. They use their conversations and discussions as tools, not only to better their own performance, but also to lead by example, to demonstrate what they believe to be or what they would wish to be, the acceptable norms and boundaries for behavior and performance.
Good listening means having productive and respectful interactions. You will find that as you listen better and your interactions with colleagues improve, you will actually begin to affect the behaviors of those around you and the culture of the organization or unit that you manage. Here’s how, through good listening, you will make positive cultural change happen in your business:
- Foster a more discipline and productive organization.
- Ensure the free and open flow of information and ideas.
- Establish a reverence for fact-based discussions.
- Generate new insights and more creative solutions.
- Build an organization that excites and energizes its people.
There’s no time like the present. Start your new listening journey right now, by trying to substitute one good listening practice that seems most natural to you for one bad one that you have identified.As with so many efforts at self-improvement, half the battle is already won the moment you make the decision to try and the commitment to apply yourself. I hope you’re excited by the prospect of the fuller and richer world that good listening can open up for you.