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?

Finweek English Edition - - ON THE MONEY | MANAGEMENT - By Amanda Visser

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.

Keep quiet:

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.”

Show re­spect:

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.

Chal­lenge as­sump­tions:

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

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