As a manager, you know that listening to your team is an important part of leading them. And you might feel that you’re pretty good at it. You don’t interrupt others when they speak. You always nod and say “mmm hmm” when someone it talking. But shockingly enough, all that focused effort might not be the real secret to good listening.
In a recent article, “What Great Listeners Actually Do” for the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of the Zenger/Folkman leadership development consultancy report the results of their research into what makes a good listener.
They looked at the listening skills of 3,492 participants in a management development program as assessed by their colleagues. They then compared the 5% with the highest perceived listening skills with the rest of the population and identified four somewhat surprising behaviors which set the best listeners apart.
What good listeners do
Zenger and Folkman found that the best listeners did much more than stay silent and nod encouragingly. They used what they heard create a productive and supportive conversation including:
- Asking questions that encourage the speaker to think deeply about the problem.
- Building the speaker’s self-esteem.
- Challenging assumptions in a non-competitive way.
- Making suggestions that help the speaker find new solutions.
They compare good listeners to trampolines. “They are someone you can bounce ideas off of – and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.”
We’ve all had these kinds of conversations. There’s probably someone you can point to right now who will not only listen to a problem you’re wrestling with, but also give you new ways of looking at it and a renewed sense of commitment to tackling it. These folks never make you feel bad or criticize your efforts.
According to Zenger and Folkman’s research, these productive, cooperative discussions are the hallmarks of superior listeners.
What surprised me most
Reading about this research, I was most surprised to find that people who are considered good listeners are really good conversationalists. Not that they are witty and sparkling, but that they engage deeply with the other person and become a partner in tackling a problem.
Here are three actions I would not previously have categorized as “listening skills:”
- Good listeners make suggestions. It’s ok to offer your own ideas, even advice, as long as you’re not competing with or judging the other person.
- Good listeners empathize. You have to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. That means, as a manager, you might have to remember what it was like to be new at your job or try to understand how an introvert might react to running a customer meeting.
- Good listeners observe. The non-verbal cues in the tone of voice, body posture, and eye contact can help you understand the meaning behind the words.
How to become a better listener
If you’d like to work on improving your own skills, Zenger and Folkman lay out 6 levels of listening. You can work on each level until you feel comfortable with your ability and then move to the next.
- Create a safe environment where anything can be discussed.
- Clear away distractions, focus attention on the speaker, and make appropriate eye-contact.
- Respond to the speaker with questions that help you understand and repeat issues or ideas to confirm your understanding.
- Understand the subtext by observing non-verbal cues.
- Empathize with the speaker and validate his or her feelings without judging.
- Ask questions or make suggestions that help the speaker get a new perspective on the problem and find new paths to a solution.
Is it really just listening?
Given the results of Zenger and Folkman’s research, it seems that we need to rethink the concept of “good listener” altogether. The act of listening is a necessary but insufficient condition for a truly productive conversation.
In contrast with more one-sided forms of communication like advising, assessing, or explaining, listening is really part of a two-way dialog. The listener is not only hearing, but also pondering, imagining, exploring, discovering, and extending the speaker’s ideas. Frankly, that kind of cooperative interaction sounds much more interesting and rewarding than just listening.
Thank you to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman for their insights into what we really mean by “good listening.”
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping you and your team get better at listening, coaching, presenting, and other key business skills. Learn more.