What Great Listeners Actually Do
by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman
Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.1
In our experience, most people think good listening comes down to doing three things:
In fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things—encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod, and say “mmm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is . . .” However, our research suggests that these behaviors fall short of describing good listening skills.
We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference. With those results in hand, we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.
We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. We grouped them into four main findings:
While many of us have thought being a good listener is like being a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead these findings show that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of—and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely by passively absorbing but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.
Of course, there are different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater focus and listening skill. Consider which level of listening you’d like to aim for:
Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye contact. (This behavior not only affects how you are perceived as the listener but immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.)
Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct.
Level 4: The listener observes nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals. It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It sounds strange to some, but you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.
Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathizes with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.
Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person. However, good listeners never high-jack the conversation so that they or their issues become the subject of the discussion.
Each of the levels builds on the others; thus, if you’ve been criticized (for example) for offering solutions rather than listening, it may mean you need to attend to some of the other levels (such as clearing away distractions or empathizing) before your proffered suggestions can be appreciated.
The highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height, and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.
Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, July 14, 2016 (product #H030DC).