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The Power of Listening

A colleague of mine often shares this sage advice whenever the opportunity arises; “God gave you two ears and one mouth, use them appropriately.”  It seems talking is easy and listening is hard.  Why is that? Some suggest this difficulty is related to brain function as the average person speaks at 125 words per minute, but our brains process information much more quickly.

As a result, our attention goes internal, planning what we will say in reply. When that happens, we start talking over the person who is speaking which has the effect of “discounting” that person as if their message was far less important than what we have to say. Part of this can happen when we hear an idea expressed that we don’t necessarily agree with or have another thought and we want to impose our own thoughts or feelings while in effect suppressing and disregarding the other person.  This isn’t exactly a winning communication strategy within the customer experience discipline and especially in sales or customer service capacity.

This can happen in our personal lives as well as in business.  I have some family members that visit infrequently but, when they do visit, I hear tantamount to their life’s history over the last six months in a non-stop delivery mode where one story evolves into the next with hardly a breath or space in between to even acknowledge.  Two hours of that and I’m ready for a nap. As if to add insult to injury, they never ask a single question about what has transpired in my life since I last saw them.  This is one hell of an energy draining experience for sure and you can imagine what it would be like if you had to deal with that kind of behavior daily within a business environment.

Learning to Listen with a Tennis Ball

Communication is a learned skill and one we can all learn to improve.  Those most highly successful in business and especially those in leadership positions have mastered the art of communication.  Good listening at its core involves seeking to understand others first before interrupting or spending time not listening while preparing your response—whether contrary or not to others’ perspectives.

While in graduate school at Boston University, an interesting exercise was done in which students were divided into three groups and given a problem to solve that required some creative thinking.  Each group was given a yellow tennis ball—tossed at random to one of those within the group.  The rule was simple—only the individual holding the tennis ball could speak.  All others had to listen.  If another member of the group wanted to speak, they would have to raise their hand in request of the ball.  Once the ball was passed to that person, they and only they could speak at that moment until someone else requested the ball.  This simple concept ensured that everyone had their chance to speak without someone else speaking over them. Of course, what you say when it’s your turn to speak also has an impact on the outcome of any discussion. Phrases such as “That makes sense, but…” or “Let me play devil’s advocate…” are examples of discounting that tend to shut the other person down and either bring the conversation to a screeching halt or start up an otherwise unresolvable debate.  I’ve covered this topic in a previous blogthat you may find enlightening.

Six Tips to Become a Better Listener

In their article, “The Power of Listening in Helping People Change”by Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. (Avi) Kluger, published in Harvard Business Review, they offer the following six tips for becoming a better listener.

“Listening resembles a muscle. It requires training, persistence, effort, and most importantly, the intention to become a good listener. It requires clearing your mind from internal and external noise — and if this isn’t possible, postponing a conversation for when you can truly listen without being distracted. Here are some best practices:

Give 100% of your attention, or do not listen. Put aside your smartphone, iPad, or laptop, and look at the speaker, even if they do not look back at you. In an ordinary conversation, a speaker looks at you occasionally to see that you’re still listening. Constant eye contact lets the speaker feel that you are listening.

Do not interrupt. Resist the urge to interrupt before the speaker indicates that they are done for the moment. In our workshop, we give managers the following instruction: “Go to someone at your work who makes listening very hard on you. Let them know that you are learning and practicing listening and that today, you will only listen for __ minutes (where the blank could be 3, 5, or even 10 minutes), and delay responding until the predetermined listening time is up, or even until the following day.” The managers are often amazed at their discoveries. One shared, “in 6 minutes, we completed a transaction that otherwise would have taken more than an hour”; another told us; “the other person shared things with me that I had prevented her from saying for 18 years.”

Do not judge or evaluate. Listen without jumping to conclusions and interpreting what you hear. You may notice your judgmental thoughts but push them aside. If you notice that you lost track of the conversation due to your judgments, apologize to the speaker that your mind was distracted, and ask them to repeat. Do not pretend to listen.

Do not impose your solutions. The role of the listener is to help the speaker draw up a solution themselves. Therefore, when listening to a fellow colleague or subordinate, refrain from suggesting solutions. If you believe you have a good solution and feel an urge to share it, use a question, such as “I wonder what will happen if you choose to do X?”

Ask more (good) questions. Listeners shape conversations by asking questions that benefit the speaker. Good listening requires being thoughtful about what the speaker needs help with most and crafting a question that would lead the speaker to search for an answer. Ask questions to help someone delve deeper into their thoughts and experiences. Before you ask a question, ask yourself, “is this question intended to benefit the speaker or satisfy my curiosity?” Of course, there is room for both, but a good listener prioritizes the needs of the other. One of the best questions you can ask is, “Is there anything else?” This often exposes novel information and unexpected opportunities.

Reflect. When you finish a conversation, reflect on your listening and think about missed opportunities — moments you ignored potential leads or remained silent versus asking questions. When you feel that you were an excellent listener, consider what you gained, and how you can apply this type of listening in more challenging circumstances.”

Becoming an Active Listener

In another interesting and short article, “Active Listening: The Key to Strong Workplace Relationships, Productivity, and Personal Empowermentby Elle Kaplan, CEO and Founder, LexION Capital, CIO and Founder, LexION Alpha, she asserts:

“Active listening is the key to getting the most out of a conversation and has numerous personal and interpersonal benefits. While studies show that most people believe that they have above-average listening skills, the average person listens with only about 25% efficiency. Listening is a misunderstood skill, and one in which you probably have great potential for growth.”

Those of us in the Customer Experience discipline can benefit tremendously from building improved listening skills.  Whether you are a practitioner, a provider, or a consultant in CX, there’s a lot to be gained by becoming a better listener for your own personal success and brand as well as the success of your organization.