Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rebecca D. Minehart, Benjamin B. Symon, and Laura K. Rock for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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A good manager knows that listening is important, but too few people know how to listen well. Even common techniques, like “active listening” can be counterproductive. After all, merely sharing the amount of speaking time, or parroting back what a speaker said, does not achieve understanding.
Consider three common conversations:
Employee: “I’m worried about my presentation for the board meeting.”
Supervisor: “Oh, you’re doing great. It took me years before I could present without being nervous.”
Colleague A: “I really need a vacation.”
Colleague B: “You should go to this rustic resort in the mountains. I just came back from there and it was the best vacation I’ve had in years. I’ll send you the info.”
Patient: “I’m scared about this procedure.”
Clinician: “Your surgeon has done hundreds of these. The complication rate is low.”
The well-intentioned responses above are not egregious, but they don’t meet the speakers’ needs or address their concerns. The employee worried about the board meeting may want critical feedback rather than premature reassurance, Colleague A’s flippant statement about needing a vacation may portend deeper unstated problems not addressed by an itinerary, and the patient may have had relevant concerns underlying their emotions which are missed through attempted reassurance.
These examples serve to illustrate an important aspect of leadership: Most of us miss opportunities in interactions through the default ways we listen. Like other critical communication skills, listening well depends on awareness of the goals, our own habits, and choosing how to respond. The good news is, with practice, we can all be more effective listeners.
Styles of Listening
Learning to listen well begins with understanding what type of listener you are. In our work as both health care clinicians in critical care and debriefing experts who teach how to optimize learning conversations, we have observed four distinct listening styles:
- An analytical listener aims to analyze a problem from a neutral starting point.
- A relational listener aims to build connection and understand the emotions underlying a message.
- A critical listener aims to judge both the content of the conversation and the reliability of the speaker themselves.
- A task-focused listener shapes a conversation towards efficient transfer of important information.
Developing the ability to shift dynamically between these styles can lead to impactful conversations by matching the speaker’s needs with the most appropriate listening technique. This is the first step to improving your listening.
5 Ways to Improve Your Listening
Becoming a better listener doesn’t only mean understanding how you listen, it requires taking certain actions, too. We outline the five most important things listeners can do to improve.
[Here are the first two ways to improve.]
1. Establish why you are listening.
There are myriad reasons why we listen the way we do: to be efficient, to avoid conflict, to gain attention, to support, or simply to entertain. When those reasons are repeatedly (and perhaps unconsciously) prioritized, we shortchange other listening goals.
When entering a conversation, consider reflecting briefly on what the goals of the conversation are, and how best you can listen in that moment. Might the speaker be seeking honest critique, an analytical reflection or an emotional connection? We may not have the bandwidth to fully listen— i.e., we’re surface listening— and should share that with the other person who may be looking for more than we can give in that moment.
2. Recognize how you usually listen.
Our “usual” listening style may be sabotaging our goals. We may have received positive feedback for being consistently efficient, funny, articulate, or supportive, but the default style being used may preclude applying different listening styles to achieve other goals. For example, time-pressured environments often require task-oriented or critical listening styles in order to make rapid decisions. While that may be consistently effective at work, it may backfire when applied frequently at home to family and friends who may need something more than rapid decision support.
Child: “I’m not going to school today. I have no friends.”
Parent: “Of course you have friends! You were just invited to Sally’s birthday party. At recess today, say hello to three new kids.”
When expressions of emotion are met with task-oriented or critical listening styles, as in the above example, we may miss valuable opportunities to better understand underlying values and concerns or even gain actionable information by exploring or offering empathy through validation. In these situations, providing coaching, or false reassurance such as a friendly “you’ll be fine,” can make people feel unheard and discouraged from sharing.
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