How to distinguish an artful listener from a bad one
Listening is a vital skill, but many people never master it. So what makes a good listener? Is it possible that you are one of six types of bad listeners?
the art of listening is one that very few people seem to be able to master, despite it being a critical skill. It has been said that listening is the front end of decision-making, whether in one’s personal or professional life. The most important element of being a good listener is to be fully present. It is easy to see whether you are dealing with a bad listener.
Bernie Jacobs, executive coach and corporate trainer at Compass Coaching Solutions in Cape Town, says they normally have a “glazed-out” look.
“You really have to stop what you are doing if you want to listen. Many listen in order to reply. We think faster than we speak or hear, therefore people cannot speak fast enough for us. We tend to interrupt or zone out,” says Jacobs.
“We have to recognise the tendencies within ourselves to want to finish people’s sentences, to interrupt or to multi-task while listening. We have to look honestly at the way we listen to others.”
One way is to “feed back” what we have heard to the other person. “Quite often we make assumptions that are not appropriate.”
The person will either say that that is exactly what they had said, or that it was not quite what they meant. You will therefore find out if you correctly understood what they meant. This is bound to build rapport and the relationship. The person you are speaking to will feel that they have really been heard.
“People get frustrated at not being heard. And it is quite rare for them to be truly heard. When it does happen, it builds immense feelings of warmth and appreciation,” says Jacobs.
A critical part of listening is to “listen” for emotion. The feelings are not always reflected in the words and to “hear” the emotions beneath the words demands focused attention. If you can reflect that back to people, they really feel “heard”.
Dealing with bad listeners
Jacobs says you can model good behaviour and hope that it has an “osmotic” effect. The way one deals with a bad listener depends on the power dynamic. If you are speaking to your boss you can try to break your message up into smaller units, make your points simpler and make fewer points in one breath. “You need to listen to yourself and take responsibility for your own communication. You cannot blame others if you are frustrated. You have to be able to describe the problem in non-judgmental language,” says Jacobs.
Consultant and author Bernard T. Ferrari says great listeners exhibit three kinds of behaviour – keeping quiet, showing respect, and challenging assumptions. In an interview following the publication of his book Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, he said it is hard to listen when you are talking.
His guideline is that a conversation partner should be speaking 80% of the time, while you speak 20% of the time.
“Moreover, I seek to make my speaking time count by spending as much of it as possible posing questions rather than having my own say.”
It is obviously not easy to stifle the impulse to speak, but it can be overcome. The power of keeping quiet and stepping into the conversation at the right time should not be underestimated.
“When we remain silent, we also improve the odds that we will spot nonverbal cues (the emotions beneath the words) we might otherwise have missed.”
Showing respect does not mean the manager or leader should avoid asking the tough questions. Good listeners routinely ask tough questions to uncover the information they need to make better decisions.
“The goal is ensuring the free and open flow of information and ideas,” Ferrari wrote in an article published in the McKinsey Quarterly.
He says in every conversation assumptions are lurking below the surface. Good listeners seek to understand and even challenge those assumptions.
He refers to former baseball manager Earl Weaver, describing him as nothing short of terrifying, and the most profane man he had ever met.
The guy was really not a listener; he seemed more of a screamer in a “perpetual state of rage”. He went
on to write his autobiography, It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts.
Ferrari remarks that this Zen-like philosophy clashed with the Weaver people thought they knew. The title of his autobiography “perfectly” states one of the cornerstones of good listening.
“To get what we need from our conversations, we must be prepared to challenge long-held and cherished assumptions.”
Many people struggle to let go of their assumptions – and in many instances they are not even aware of those ingrained assumptions that make it difficult to open themselves to new ideas.
Ferrari says in conversations the goal must be common action and not common thinking.
He has compiled a “field guide” to identifying bad listeners. There are six common archetypes – and it is quite possible for people to demonstrate all six types in one single day.
“You need to listen to yourself and take responsibility for your own communication. You cannot blame others if you are frustrated.”
• The Opinionater:
They primarily listen to others to determine whether or not their ideas fit in with what the Opionater already thinks is true. The effect is intimidation.
• The Grouch:
They mainly think anything the other person says is wrong. They are quite rude and few people have the courage to even approach them with an idea.
• The Preambler:
Their long-winded questions are really “stealth speeches”. They are seldom interested in what the other person has to say and “epitomises” one-way communication.
• The Perseverator:
They talk non-stop but says nothing. It may even feel as if the two of you are having completely different conversations.
• The Answer Person:
They find solutions long before there is consensus about the problem. They simply cannot help themselves – they already have answers for any issue that may come up.
• The Pretender:
They feign listening quite well. They will nod, smile and show that they are taking in every word you are saying, but when the decision is made it reflects only their ideas. ■
Bernie Jacobs Executive coach and corporate trainer at Compass Coaching Solutions