Business leaders should listen more, talk less
Aug 06, 2013 | 1205 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“Listening may be the single most undervalued and undeveloped business skill, especially in an age of increasing uncertainty and fast-paced change.” — Jeffery Immelt, GE chairman and CEO

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A few years ago when my boys left home for college I went back to school and obtained my graduate degree in counseling psychology. One of the things I quickly learned was how critical listening skills are to the healing of emotional pain.

In fact, for people who are experiencing emotional depression or anxiety, having someone actually sit and listen to what they are saying can be very therapeutic in and of itself. Many people have no one to listen to them. Oftentimes, the people in our lives are always talking instead of lending a listening ear.

So it is in other areas of life, especially on the job. Active listening is an important skill for leaders to demonstrate with their employees. Successful leaders will tell you that a key factor to their effectiveness is the ability and skill of listening to the competition, the market and to their employees.

However, when employees are surveyed to evaluate their boss, the results are not surprising. Most employees say their boss needs to be a better listener. Employees like and need to have their ideas “heard.”

Bernard Ferrari’s “Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All,” says nothing causes bad decisions in organizations as often as poor listening. Great listeners demonstrate specific behaviors that can be developed, practiced and mastered. Good listeners are respectful, know when to remain quiet and challenge assumptions.

Respect: Respect colleagues’ potential to provide insights. Many times experienced employees can provide solutions if they are asked and if they are heard. As leaders, we should set aside specific times and provide an appropriate forum which allows employees to express their views on current work conditions, workplace problems and possible solutions.

Know when to keep quiet: Ferrari identifies his own 80/20 rule — listen to your conversation partner 80 percent of the time and only speak 20 percent of the time. Have you ever been on a job interview and the person conducting the interview talks the entire time, leaving you mute and unable to explain why you’re the best person for the job? I have, and it’s very discouraging. (Note to interviewers: Ask questions, talk less!) Have you ever attended a dinner party with friends and one or two people monopolized the entire evening endlessly talking (usually about themselves)? It’s no fun, is it?

Silence: At appropriate times, silence during the conversation can feel uncomfortable, but it’s OK. Silence can be used as a listening technique which allows the other person to speak and be heard. This period of silence gives you the opportunity to observe body language.

Challenge assumptions: An assumption is an idea or statement one believes to be true based on prior experience or belief systems for which no proof or evidence is offered. We all make assumptions every day to help us make sense of the world around us. However, effective leaders ask questions to challenge assumptions. Just because someone believes it or speaks it, doesn’t make it true. Ask for evidence behind the assumptions. Questions give the other person in the conversation an opportunity to talk. When the other person talks, it’s your turn to listen.

In his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Franklin Covey teaches that we should “listen to understand.” Many times we make the mistake of “listening to prepare a response.”

Effective listening in the workplace can provide a fertile ground for new ideas and motivate your team to increase production.

Now, about that counseling technique and the 80/20 rule? Try out these same listening skills on your spouse or significant other and get back to me.

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(Editor’s Note: This guest “Viewpoint” was written and submitted by Rick Creasy, director of Workforce Development at Cleveland State Community College.)