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become a good listener

Six Ways to Be a Bad Listener

I don’t need your opinions. I have my own.

Bernard Ferrari, who has written a lot about listening skills, has identified six “archetypes” of bad listeners. As I read through the descriptions, I realize that I make some of these mistakes all too often. In fact, for one of these — I won’t say which — I thought, “Boy, that sounds exactly like me. Could it be that I’ve been a bad listener for all these years?” I hope you’re a better listener than I am. However, you may spot yourself in some of the following descriptions. If you do, you’ve still got plenty of time to take corrective action.

The Opinionator — may appear to be listening closely but is really just trying to judge whether what you’re saying conforms to his existing opinions. If it does, you’re OK. If not, the Opinionator is ready to squelch your ideas. Not a good person for helping you develop innovative but fragile ideas.

The Grouch — doesn’t like other people’s opinions and doesn’t want to waste her time listening to them. Through body language and via the things she says (and doesn’t say) she’ll let you know that she thinks you’re a fool. A hard person to get through to.

The Preambler — long-winded, prone to giving “stealth speeches” that are disguised as questions or introductions. May use slanted questions (or other rhetorical devices) designed to steer the discussion and get the answer he wants. Interrupting him may be your only defense.

The Perseverator — talks much, says little. What she says doesn’t advance the conversation but it does take time. By filling the time, she leaves you with less time to advance your cause. She may also simply talk past you — not acknowledging or responding to your points.

The Answer Man — always has an answer to everything, even before the question has been fully formed (or agreed to). Providing an answer before the question is asked suggests that he doesn’t really care what you have to say. He’s so eager to impress, that he’ll jump ahead of you. The Opinionator needs to be right; the Answer Man needs to impress.

The Pretender — appear to be engaged and listening actively but, really, they’ve already made their minds up. It’s hard to spot a Pretender during a conversation — they’re good at pretending. It’s only afterwards, when they do the opposite of what you expected (or do nothing at all), that you realize that they were just pretending.

Do you recognize yourself in any of these? If you do, you might try Ferrari’s 80/20 rule — a good listener speaks about 20% of the time and listens about 80% of the time. I find that hard to do; I’m always tempted to jump in with opinions and solutions. But when I do succeed in listening more and speaking less, I make better decisions and fewer mistakes.

This article is adapted from Bernard Ferrari’s, “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2012. Click here for the full article.



Innovation, Persuasion, and Listening

I’m listening.

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.


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