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