Listening Is Worth The Effort
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 endeavor. 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 businessperson 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.
What Kind of Listener Are You?
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 models 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 models, 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 models 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.