listening by Scott Cochrane

With organizations and individuals so fervently focused on the bottom line, it’s easy to ignore “softer” goals, such as listening well. All that touchy-feeling stuff is a waste of my time, you might say or think when the pressure is on.

On the contrary! A focus on listening can lead to more effective teamwork, higher productivity, fewer conflicts and errors, enhanced innovation and problem-solving, improved recruiting and retention, superior customer relations and more. As authors on leadership development have noted through the years, listening is not just a nice thing to do… it’s essential!

“Make the human element as important as the financial or the technical element,” wrote Stephen Covey in his seminal book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “You save tremendous amounts of time, energy and money when you tap into the human resources of a business at every level. When you listen, you learn.”

As long ago as 1966, Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive and numerous other books, emphasized the importance of listening to both self and others as an essential step in bringing to light everyone’s role as contributors to the organization’s overall success. Likewise, studies in Emotional Intelligence over the past couple of decades have found that leaders actually “infect” the workplace – for better or for worse – with their attitudes and energy. To understand and influence these flows of emotions and motivational states, leaders need to be able to practice empathic listening skills.

In their book Primal Leadership, authors Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, describe how varying leadership styles rely on listening skills for their effectiveness.

Visionary leaders listen to values held by individuals within the group, enabling them to explain their own goals for the organization in a way that wins support.

Coaching leaders listen one-on-one to employees, establish rapport and trust, and help employees help themselves in matters of performance and information gathering.

Affiliative leaders listen for employees’ emotional needs and strive to honor and accommodate those needs in the workplace.

Democratic leaders elicit ideas and participation by listening to everyone’s opinions and information.

In Seven Habits, Covey cites numerous examples of successful business deals and resolved workplace issues in pointing out the importance—and power—of empathic listening versus mechanical, or perfunctory listening. He also acknowledges that it takes time and practice to become adept at listening empathically. Here are some tips for sharpening your listening skills.

Develop your curiosity. This helps greatly with one of Covey’s “7 Habits”: Seek first to understand. Genuine curiosity is felt by others and helps to open up their speech and your listening.

Recapitulate what the other person is saying as part of your response. (ex: “So what your saying is that we should explore the untapped synergies between sales and marketing…”) Then be quiet and allow them to build on their idea. Doing this obliges you to concentrate on the central message and also tells the other person that you are listening, that you understand and are interested.

Seek feedback. Coworkers, employees, bosses, clients/customers and suppliers can provide valuable feedback on how they perceive your listening skills. This can easily form part of a periodic stakeholder survey process on other feedback areas as well.

Get some support. Coaches can help you develop ways to listen more effectively to those around you – also to yourself – for greater awareness and leadership impact.

Historically, listening has always been the pending subject to study in the communication field. Think about it, how much education have you received in your lifetime in speaking, reading, writing, making presentations, etc… And how about education in listening? A quite unbalanced equation in most cases. Let’s recognize that listening represents a full 50% of the communication process and give it the attention it deserves. The rewards are as remarkable for business as they are on a personal level.

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications