How To Be A Great Listener

It seems a simple concept – to listen – but to do it effectively does require some thought and intention. It goes far beyond hearing what somebody has to say. Ernest Hemingway advised, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Active listening is a skill that is encouraged, particularly amongst coaches. The process involves paying attention, not judging, reflecting, summarising and sharing. For many, nodding and making encouraging noises before repeating back key phrases seems to tick those boxes. Much management advice echoes that pattern of nod, encourage and summarise what the other person has said to prove that you’ve heard them.

However, research conducted by leadership development agency Zenger/ Folkman proves that great listening needs to go so much further than that.  They analysed nearly 3500 participants in a development program and ascertained the attributes that differentiated a great listener from an average listener.

Attributes Of A Great Listener

  • Be an active listener: when the conversation is a two-way dialogue with the listener asking pertinent questions, the speaker feels that they have been heard and that the listener understands what they have said.
  • Make it a positive experience: when the listener ensures that the parties are in a safe environment where open discussion is encouraged, the speaker feels empowered to convey confidences. Being supportive rather than critical makes a huge difference.
  • Don’t be competitive: listeners appreciate a smooth dialogue where parties exchange views and feedback in a helpful manner. When listeners pick holes in the listener’s logic and became argumentative or challenging, the listening experience is viewed poorly.
  • Make supportive suggestions: providing feedback and offering possible options is seen positively when the dialogue has been two-way and positive throughout. Listeners are less open to feedback  from a listener who has been competitive or even silent throughout the conversation and only offering solutions at the end.
  • Pick up on emotional cues: a great listener will notice body language signals and what the speaker is communicating non-verbally.
  • Don’t make it about you: offer supportive or constructive comments to show that you understand or that can help the listener see things differently. But when a listener takes over the conversation or turns the spotlight onto themselves, it is viewed negatively.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman whose company released these research findings, summarise it neatly with this analogy:

“Good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”

The common notion that a good listener simply absorbs facts is becoming outdated. Listening is much more active and, done well, can empower, uplift and support a person, giving them a much needed boost in spirits and energy.

Further reading: Why asking questions and being curious are traits of a truly inclusive leader

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Zac’s tech business is growing rapidly. He’s gone from being a developer with a good idea to now overseeing an ever-expanding team. Zac knows that in order for the business to grow successfully, it needs to stay true to its founding values and his staff need to feel valued and engaged. Zac wants to understand if he and his team are on the same page and he needs to do it quickly and cost effectively.

Zac's PCS Solution

Zac decides to use PCS Lite to get a quick temperature check of how his team are performing and what they think about the business. The PCS Lite report quickly surfaces the fact that his team have lost sight of the organisation’s purpose and goals. Zac realises that he needs to improve his on-boarding processes and help orientate the new team members better in the company culture and vision. 6 months later, Zac uses PCS Lite to check his new onboarding process is working; concludes that the growing team are much better aligned to his vision and are generally operating in a more positive working environment.

Annabel's Challenges:

It’s Annabel’s job to help the Partners in the firm manage their clients and ensure they’re consistently adding value. Recently, Annabel has been asked by one of the Partners to find a tool or framework that the consultants can use to benchmark new clients looking for team and leadership improvement programmes. It needs to be cost-effective, established and reputable and able to be branded with the firm’s own logo.

Annabel's PCS Solution

Annabel recommends PCS Pro to the Senior Partners as it provides an objective measurement of team and leadership climate against which the consultants can build performance improvement programmes. PCS has a good track record, academic validation, excellent training and customer service, so she’s confident that it’s the right tool for the firm’s consultants to use.

Sarah's Challenges:

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Sarah's PCS Solution

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Jim's Challenges:

Jim’s client has a team that’s not performing as well other teams in the organisation. The team has a high staff turnover, sickness and the lack of cohesion is impacting the team’s wellbeing and performance. Jim needs to get to the bottom of why this is happening and design effective coaching interventions which can generate tangible results for his client.

Jim's PCS Solution

Jim uses PCS Pro to measure / benchmark how the team and leader are performing across the 6 segments critical to team performance – Goals, Roles, Processes, Adaptability, Connection and Resilience. He can immediately see the disparity in Goals, Processes and Connection between the leader’s perception and those of her team. He uses this information to build a coaching programme designed align team and leader. After 6 months, the team seems to be more settled and productive. Jim remeasures using PCS Pro – the results show the client the effectiveness of his coaching intervention.