Given that listening accounts for 45% of time spent on communication, it is difficult to argue the importance of listening skills in the workplace. Listening behaviours have a huge impact on the growth of business in the workplace, because it shows the interaction between co-workers and how they deal with problems in their environment.
People often believe they understand what effective listening entails. In general, the following are understood to be the foundations of good listening:
- Not talking when others are speaking;
- Letting others know you are listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds; and
- Being able to repeat what others have said.
In fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things: encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…” However, recent research suggests that these behaviours fall far short of describing good listening skills.
Researchers analysed data describing the behaviour of 3,492 participants in a development programme for managers to be better coaches. As part of this programme, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360 degree assessments. The top 5% of those perceived as being the most effective leaders were identified. These individuals were compared to the other individuals and the differences were identified. The results were grouped into four main findings:
- Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. In fact, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Simply nodding your head is not enough evidence that a person is listening. However, asking questions shows that not only are you listening but you comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialogue, rather than a one-way speaker versus hearer interaction. The best conversations were active.
- Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other person, which does not happen when the listener is passive. Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them. Good listening was characterised by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
- Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive (as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response). Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
- Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. People are more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. Thus, someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible and may look like they are automatically in solution-mode. Someone who seems critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.
Eunson, B. (2012). Communicating in the 21st Century (3rd ed.). Milton, QLD: John Wiley Australia.
Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016). What great listeners actually do. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-great-listeners-actually-do.