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Listening Improves Performance

Did you ever consider that listening can improve performance because ‘it is the front-end of decision-making’?

Bernard Ferrari wrote in The McKinsey Quarterly that strong listening skills make a critical difference in the performance of senior executives.  Unfortunately, he writes too that few are able to cultivate these necessary skills.  Poor listening skills often ‘short-circuit what should have been a healthy strategic debate’.

Listening is the most certain and efficient way to inform judgments, yet executives (and managers in general) are encouraged to make strong arguments and present their views effectively.  Listening is not one of the skills upon which promotions tend to be based.

But think about a great journalist.  What does she do well?  She asks questions and probes before writing and creating a point of view.  According to Mr. Ferrari, “Good listening — the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity — is the key to building a strong base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas.”  If executives listened better, decisions would be formed more openly and rigorously.

The McKinsey article noted three kinds of behaviors shared among great listeners.

First, Show Respect.   When talking with someone or in a group, let him/them know you believe that each person has something unique to contribute.  The respect will be reciprocated, helping ‘fuel an environment where good ideas routinely come from throughout the organization’.  While many managers have the skills to develop good solutions, implementations and choices could be enhanced by drawing out critical information in a new light through active listening.  Instead of jumping quickly to a conclusion, managers can actually help others by demonstrating respect for other points of view and added insights.

Second, Keep Quiet.  A rule of thumb is to allow your partner to speak 80% of the time and use your 20% to pose questions ‘rather than trying to have your own say’.  Such proportions are not simple for executives who speak their minds.  “Still, you can’t really listen if you’re too busy talking.”  (Nobody is more boring than someone who broadcasts his own status, ideas or accomplishments, dominating the conversation.)  By concentrating on your ideas, you’re not leaving yourself open to what the other person is saying or the possibility of uncovering a new perspective.  Though it’s not easy to restrict your impulse to speak, ‘with patience and practice you can learn to control the urge and improve the quality of your conversations by weighing in at the right time’.  If you do interrupt, be neutral and emotionless as possible and ‘always delay the rebuttal.  And when we remain silent, we also improve the odds that we’ll spot nonverbal cues we might have missed otherwise’.

Third, Challenge Our Assumptions.  The true defining characteristic of a good listener is that she seeks to understand.  Within each conversation ‘lie assumptions below the surface’ that might not align with the way we think.  To listen well, we must be ready to challenge our own long-held beliefs and internal arguments.  Executives must relax their assumptions, opening themselves to possibilities which can only be learned by hearing what others say.

Human interactions are based on eons of genetic and learned behavior.  Changing how we listen takes real effort because it forces us to reconsider our own assumptions, expose ourselves to the scrutiny of others, and reevaluate what we think we knew.

Not a bad way to start a new year.