I struggle to be a good listener. When I’m engaged in an intense conversation, I’m often: 1) Framing my response; or 2) Thinking about a solution to the problem at hand. Of course, when I’m thinking about something else, I’m not really listening — I’m maneuvering. More importantly, I’m not being persuasive. If the other side thinks I’m not listening, they’re less likely to be persuaded to my point of view.
So I was pleased to find a recent McKinsey white paper by Bernard Ferrari titled “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”. (Click here). As Ferrari points out, “Listening is the front end of decision making.” If you want your company to be more innovative, you’ll need to make a number of critical decisions. If you’re a good listener, you’ll make better decisions and be more persuasive. That’s the best double play since Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio.
So how do you become a good listener? Ferrari suggests three critical skills. First, show respect. Respect breeds confidence and trust. (This is essentially the same lesson that Greek rhetoric teaches — build trust first). If you’re a manager, you probably have a complex set of responsibilities. You can’t know everything about every facet of your domain. By respecting your teammates, you will naturally draw them into the conversation and learn from them. If you simply jump to a solution (as I sometimes do) you short circuit the entire process. Not only do you miss out on any advice about the current situation, you also teach your colleagues not to offer advice in the future. This doesn’t mean you should avoid incisive questions. Au contraire, the more the better to keep the conversation flowing.
Second, keep quiet. Ferrari suggest a variation of the 80/20 rule — let the other person speak about 80% of the time while you speak only 20% of the time. (This also works when you’re on a date — always encourage your partner to speak more than you do). This is a particularly hard one for me. I want to jump in and share my opinion because I know it’s … well, brilliant. But often times, I wind up answering the wrong question or chasing an irrelevant tangent because I’ve spoken too soon. As Ferrari notes, it’s important to take your time: “…if a matter gets to your level … it is probably worth spending some of your time on it.”
Third, challenge assumptions. This doesn’t just mean that you challenge other people’s assumptions. It also means that you encourage your colleagues to challenge your assumptions. As Ferrari writes, “… too many executives … inadvertently act as if they know it all … and subsequently remain closed to anything that undermines their beliefs.” Ultimately, “The goal is common action, not common thinking…” So, be explicit. Let your colleagues know that you don’t know everything and welcome their questions, especially the challenging ones.
I’ve found that it’s not easy to master these three skills. But when I do succeed, I learn more and, frankly, I have more fun. That makes me a better manager and a better teammate. And that makes my company more innovative.