By Carole Wehn
“Hey, got a minute?” You’re ready to rush off for a meeting or head out for the evening, and one of your staff stops by your desk. You want to listen to what your team member has to say, but you don’t have the time for an effective conversation. What do you do?
Being a Good Listener
When one of your team needs to talk, you want to support them by being a good listener. But what characterizes good listening?
Most people would agree that effective listening includes looking at the speaker, giving them your full attention, nodding in agreement, and repeating back some of the statements, showing that you understand what is being said.
But when a colleague wants to talk, and you don’t have the necessary time, effective listening requires first assessing the issue’s urgency.
Do they need an answer to a time-sensitive work-related question? Are they looking for a sounding board before they give an opinion in an upcoming meeting? If the issue is not urgent, the best approach is to schedule a time to speak when you can provide the attention your team member needs and deserves.
But perhaps the best way to be a good listener is to stop talking and let the other person speak without interruption or judgment. As early twentieth-century author Alice Duer Miller said,
“People love to talk but hate to listen. Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told to us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.”
The Difference between Average and Great Listeners
Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman studied almost 3,500 managers to determine the difference between great and average listeners. Their findings, which were reported in the Harvard Business Review, identified four main qualities of great listeners:
- The best listeners ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Rather than listening quietly, they ask questions that let the speaker know that they understand and want more information. They create a two-way dialogue vs. one-way speech.
- The best listeners make the speaker feel supported and safe. They do not assume they know what they are going to hear and are not judgmental.
- The best listeners may challenge some of the speaker’s remarks, but they do so in a non-competitive way. They don’t come across as trying to win an argument or get the speaker to change their mind.
- The best listeners provide feedback without making it look like they are trying to solve the problem for the speaker. Instead, they ask questions and make observations that will help lead the speaker to solutions.
How Good Listening Affects Influence
It’s been said that you have more ability to influence others by your listening than through your speaking. Most people believe that influential people are those who can effectively express themselves. However, in the Journal of Research in Personality, Ames, Maissen, and Brockner note that “those who listen well may reap both informational and relational benefits that make them more influential.”
If we carefully listen to what the speaker is saying, we not only benefit from the information they are sharing, but we also get insights into the speaker. Listening helps us know their objectives, beliefs, and attitudes. This knowledge enables us to exert influence over them more effectively in future encounters.
The informational benefits of good listening are enhanced when you are genuinely curious and open to learning. The listener’s openness to new ideas, in turn, encourages the speaker to share more.
Listening also imparts relational benefits. Good listening makes the speaker feel heard and valued. While gaining the speaker’s trust through careful listening, we can position ourselves to use that trust in expanding our power of influence over them.
These relational benefits are magnified when the speaker views the listener as approachable, empathetic, and trustworthy.
How to Improve Your Listening
Listening is a skill, and it requires development like any other skill. In the Harvard Business Review article, Zenger and Folkman highlighted six levels of listening. Not every encounter requires all six levels of listening, but breaking it down in this way helps pinpoint areas of listening that may need skill development.
Creating a safe environment for speaking and listening. Think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – attending to the very basic needs for effective communication by making people feel safe and supported.
The need to eliminate distractions. Turn away from the computer. Put down the phone and silence it. Don’t look at the clock. Perhaps move to a different place where you can talk freely without interruption. Eliminating these potential distractions makes the speaker feel like what they are saying is important to you.
Seeking to understand the substance of what is being said. “Replicating,” or repeating back in your own words what has been said, is a technique to reinforce understanding.
Using nonverbal cues. These signals, which include making eye contact, nodding, leaning towards the speaker, and making comments like “I see,” show the speaker that you are paying attention. Zenger and Folkman estimate that 80% of our communication is nonverbal.
Empathy and validation of the speaker’s feelings. This is also known as generous listening. John Amodeo, Ph.D. notes in “How Listening is the Ultimate Act of Generosity,”
“Generous listening is not about fixing anyone’s problem or telling them what to do. It’s simply about extending our caring attention and presence toward someone who needs our caring.” Listening at this level is supportive and non-judgmental.”
Asking questions to get clarity and introduce other ideas for consideration. Again, the listener is non-judgmental but may add some insight on the topic that could be useful to the speaker.
How to Practice Good Listening over Zoom
The majority of your current communication is likely over a remote working platform. As noted by Joe Navarro in Psychology Today, most of the same suggestions for effective listening apply even if you’re not meeting in person.
Close your office door, close any open browsers on your computer, and silence your phone and put it away. Mute your mic to avoid any distractions for the speaker. Look at your camera to approximate making eye contact. Other nonverbal cues such as leaning in, nodding, smiling, tilting your head to show interest, and even arching your eyebrows send signals to the speaker that you are listening.
How Good Listening Benefits Corporate Culture
The lifeblood of great company culture is the communication among its team members. Speaking and listening to one another is key to conveying job information, making people feel valued, and working through problems.
At CultureWise, one of our company Fundamentals, or the behaviors we seek to reinforce in our desired culture, is “Listen Generously.” The description of this Fundamental behavior is:
“Listening is more than simply ‘not speaking.’ Be present and engaged. Quiet the noise in your head and let go of the need to agree or disagree. Create space for team members to express themselves without judgment. Listen with care and with empathy. Above all, listen to understand.”
Quieting the noise in your head and letting go of the need to agree or disagree is easier said than done. How often do you find yourself formulating your response before the speaker concludes? Especially in a group setting – it’s tempting to have a ready comment as soon as the speaker stops before anyone else chimes in.
When you are speaking, how refreshing would it be if you didn’t immediately need to defend your position? Empathize with the speaker and let them express their thoughts without interrupting or jumping in to rebut their comments.
Create a culture where people feel free to express their thoughts, knowing that they can speak in a safe environment, they are not pre-judged, they do not need to immediately defend their views, and their comments are valued.
“Think of the difference in collaboration and, ultimately, success when an organization is able to create an environment that encourages and supports generous listening. How much more creative are people likely to be? How much more engaged are they likely to be? How much more receptive to new approaches are they likely to be? How many more good ideas are likely to surface? The difference is truly enormous.”
How CultureWise Can Help Drive your Culture
Friedman wrote Culture by Design to share his thoughts on how organizational culture is about behavior, and creating a culture is about choosing and then reinforcing certain behaviors. For example, if you want a culture that emphasizes open communication, give employees specific behaviors to help them become more effective speakers and listeners.
The book provides an 8-step framework for creating and institutionalizing your culture. It offers simple, clear directions about what is needed to complete each step. You can learn more by reading a free two-chapter download.
Developing a culture where people can effectively speak and be heard takes work. For those who need help, CultureWise offers a turnkey system to help you build and operationalize your culture in 4 simple steps:
- Define the behaviors that drive success in your organization.
- Create and deploy the rituals necessary to teach and practice those behaviors with consistency.
- Engage your workforce for maximum impact.
- Serve daily, high-quality teaching content to your team through the use of a powerful mobile app.
Following the same framework as Culture by Design, The CultureWise standard edition provides an automated process to choose from a list of sixty core behaviors proven to drive success within an organization. A custom option is also available.