February 20, 2012

News & Opinion: What Kind of Listener Are You?

By: Sally Haldorson @ 10:32 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Every morning when I drop my 6-year-old son off for school, I remind him to put on his listening ears. It is quite adorable when he reaches a hand up to each ear and "clicks" them into place. Of course this ritual of ours is more about reminding him to follow directions given by his teacher than teaching him social attentiveness. And yet, it plants the seed that what other people say matters. It is the very beginning step in helping him become a good listener. Listening is a big deal, at any age, but unfortunately you can't just click on your listening ears in order to be good at it. Good listening takes practice. It takes self-awareness. It takes a book like Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of Them All by Bernard T. Ferrari, available from Penguin Portfolio on March 1, to help you understand just how valuable listening skills are...or how detrimental it is to not refine yours. What sets this book apart from other books on listening (of which there are plenty) is that Ferrari, a business consultant with a long history at McKinsey & Co and also as a health care provider, is interested in "listening for the purpose of arriving at a better business decision." Why is listening critical to business success? Ferrari makes his case:
Listening can well be the difference between profit and loss, between success and failure, between a long career and a short one. Listening is the only way to find out what you don't know, and marks the path to making good decisions, arriving at the best ideas. If you aspire to be better at your job, no matter what it is, listening may be the most powerful tool at your disposal.
Of course this makes sense to all of us. And there is hardly a one of us who would readily admit that we are poor listeners! So it makes sense to jump into Ferrari's book at Chapter 2, "What Kind of Listener Are You?" to help you determine your own starting point on this journey to become a better listener.
  • The Opinionator has a "tendency to listen to others really only to determine whether or not his ideas conform to what the Opinionator already knows to be true"?
  • "The Grouch is blocked by the certainty that your ideas are wrong."
  • "The Preambler's windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches, often designed to box his [conversation partner] in."
  • "The Perseverator may appear to be engaged in productive dialogue, but if you pay attention, you might notice that he's not really advancing the conversation."
  • The Answer Man "is the person who starts spouting solutions before there is even a consensus about what the challenge might be, signaling that he is finished listening to your input in the conversation."
  • "The Pretender isn't really interested in what you have to say."
Even if you consider yourself to be a good listener (and Ferrari says you likely are...sometimes), you may see a number of these archetypes at play in your behavior depending on the situation. I know I can be quite the Answer (Wo)man when talking with my husband, while I picked up some bad Opinionator habits during my years in academia where opinions are highly encouraged that I use clumsily in social situations. Ferrari sets a high bar in Chapter 4 with his version of the "80/20 rule," a goal we can all work toward:
My guideline is that my conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time, while I speak only 20 percent of the time....I can make my speaking time count by spending as much of it as possible posing questions, rather than holding forth with my opinions and observations.
What an incredible challenge it would be to just do that! And quite counter-intuitive for many of us in the workplace, Ferrari acknowledges.
I understand that people in leadership positions feel a certain pressure to steer or direct or control conversations within their organizations, but don't be misled: Your choosing to listen more than speak does not mean you've ceded control of a conversation. Well-directed questioning and minimal but well-timed commentary can help people bring forward new facts, open their minds, think in new ways, and come up with better ideas.
By the end of Power Listening, you will better understand how to make the most of your 80/20 by learning how to challenge assumptions, focus on what you need to know, increase your tolerance for ambiguity, create an imaginary filing system for information, know when to stop the conversation and start acting, be a good listening influence. Ferrari's handy concluding chapter "What to Do on Monday Morning" that turns theory into action steps.

About Sally Haldorson

Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.