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How a Good Listener Becomes a Great One

Employees are more engaged when their voices are being heard. While most people (leaders included) would describe themselves as good listeners, employee surveys tend to uncover the truth of the matter: some leaders are far better listeners than others.

In a recent study for the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman set out to solve a simple question – “What makes someone a good listener?”

Anyone in the business management realm may scoff at the question as something obvious that they learned years ago. Don’t talk over others… Nod and verbally acknowledge that you are listening…. Repeat what others are saying. Textbook stuff.

But after a thorough investigation of nearly 3500 development program participants, identifying success factors from the top 5% of most effective listeners, the answer is a little more nuanced than you might expect.

Things Great Listeners Do:

Set the Stage
Great listeners create an environment in which complex or emotional issues can be discussed. The days of the cold ‘tough-but-fair’ boss are over. Stay open and receptive. Understand the climate you are creating.

Stay in the Moment
A great listener clears away distractions, giving the conversation at hand the attention it deserves. Leave the cell-phone or laptop email for later. Additionally, acting as if you are paying attention (nods and verbal acknowledgements) are far less valuable than sincere attention. Focus less on how it looks, and more on how it feels. If you are engaged, body language will naturally follow suit.

By pursuing details and seeking to understand meaning beyond what is being presented, you reaffirm your interest in the discussion. Be a journalist. Look for interesting details and find ways to confirm your understanding. Insert useful thoughts without becoming the subject of the conversation.

Listen with the Eyes
Non-verbal cues can speak volumes. Facial expressions, breathing patterns, gestures, posture – these are things worth “listening” to with the same level of attention that words receive.

Listen with the Heart
Interpersonal intelligence is a key element to success in leadership. Understanding others’ feelings and motives may not come naturally, but any effort to validate and acknowledge information without judgement will exercise that muscle and in time, make you a go-to leader that people are comfortable around.

To quote:

“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.”

As Zenger and Folkman discovered, great listening is far more active than traditional management leads us to believe. Far from the “speaker vs listener” model, great listening requires inclusive cooperation. While these findings do not rewrite the book, they do uncover a number of easily overlooked aspects of communication that can have real impact on the daily life of a leader (especially one dealing with change). While we may think of ourselves as good listeners, being viewed by others as a great listener is a character trait worth its weight in gold.


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