Power Listening: A book review by Bob Morris

Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All
Bernard T. Ferrari
Portfolio/Penguin Group (2012)

How and why the difference between great and mediocre managers is the ability to listen

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain suggests that there is much of value to be learned from those who are primarily introverted by nature and/or preference. For example, when engaged in conversation, they listen intently and purposefully to what another person has to say. In this book, Bernard T. Ferrari explains how to master “the most critical business skill of all,” one that I believe is also the most critical social skill of all. “The key to good listening is to develop a filing system in our heads, and to ask questions that get those folders and cabinets adequately filled.” Ferrari devotes a separate chapter to each of the following categories of situations in which feedback is obtained:

o Get to the mandate: Focus on the question to answer, the problem to solve, etc.
o Understand the plan: How to get from A to B (small picture) and from A to Z (Big Picture)
o Know who is on the team: Who will do what by when? With whom?
o Be aware of how you are executing: What is working, what isn’t, and why?
o Be mindful of the personal: Take defining characteristics of each source into full account.

I agree with Ferrari that in a business setting good listening is a critically important (albeit strenuous) activity, one that must be purposeful, under control, with total focus and engagement, and most active at the front end of decision making. As for poor listeners, Ferrari identifies and discusses six familiar types: the Opinionator (often wrong, never in doubt), the Grouch (everyone else is wrong), the Preambler (wind bag filled with digressions), the Perseverator (self-serving blah blah blah), the Answer Man/Woman (hair-trigger problem solver), and the Pretender (really could not care less). It is difficult to respect those such as these six who have no respect for you or for anyone else. This is a key point, given the much greater need now for collaboration than at any prior time that I can remember.

For me, the greatest value of this book lies in how skillfully Ferrari poses clusters of questions (in Chapters 4 and 7-11) that accomplish two separate but interdependent and immensely important purposes: To sharpen the inquiry skills of his reader (i.e. how to learn what needs to be known), and, to provide a context within which his reader can apply those skills. For example, in Chapter 4 (“How to Keep Quiet – Most of the Time”), Ferrari explains why, whenever possible, he avoids interrupting another person but when appropriate, “any interruptions or responses I make as questions. If I disagree with a statement, I’ll package my disagreement in a probing question.” In advance of discussion of key issues, he formulates a few questions that he may need “to guide the conversation into areas that will be more useful for me and CP.”

Note: CP refers to “conversation partner,” the person with whom one is speaking. The term is significant. Whereas a listener is a recipient (sometimes a target), a partner is a collaborator in a process to increase each participant’s understanding.

Ferrari brilliantly achieves his stated objectives: To review the common pitfalls in conversation and explain how to avoid or correct them; to explain the basic principles of “Power Listening” and the basic tools needed to possess and apply it; and explain also how to develop techniques “for harnessing what you hear in service of a leaner and better-informed decision-making process.” The techniques he discusses in Sections Two and Three can be adopted by almost anyone who is determined to become a Power Listener and is well along in mastering the skills discussed in Section One.

These techniques include being fully aware of everything “that their idiosyncratic filing system already contains or needs to contain; also they “rapidly shuffle and recombine any or all of the stored information, constantly adding to the options and alternatives available for consideration.” I presume to add that the “idiosyncratic filing system” to which Ferrari refers must be managed as a work in progress, one to which updated information is constantly added and from which outdated information is systematically removed. The quality and value of each judgment are determined by the quality and value of the information on which it is based.


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