Mastering the Art of Listening

We have blogged before that in order to remain relevant and be able to compete in the global market, leaders must listen to their employeeslisten to their network / peers, and listen to their stakeholders.  In “The Discipline of Listening,” Ram Charan offers some concrete ways to ensure that you are mastering the art of listening:

Pan for the nuggets… train yourself to sift for the nuggets in a conversation. Then let the other person know that they were understood by probing, clarifying, or further shaping those thoughts. The benefits of this go beyond ensuring that you heard it right: first, the person on the other end of the conversation will be gratified that you are truly grasping the essence of their thoughts and ideas; second, this gratification will motivate and energize them to create more thoughts and solutions. Listening opens the door to truly connecting and is the gateway to building relationships and capability.

Consider the Source. When working with peers, in and across teams, work to understand each person’s frame of reference—where they are coming from. This is extremely important when disagreements arise. When you truly understand the perspective of others, you are most likely to reach productive solutions; further, all the participants will feel heard, whether their solution is adopted or not. Even better, it’s likely that the solution will not turn out to be one that was brought to the table by any one party; it will be a new approach crafted in the conversational environment you created.

Prime the Pump. After GE achieved its goal of being first or second in several of its businesses with exceptional margins, then-CEO Jack Welch faced the challenge of how to spur continued growth. He actively listened to a Business Management Course team at GE’s Crotonville learning center. They suggested that, if a GE business had become the biggest fish in its pond, it was thinking about the pond too narrowly. The definition of the market needed to be changed based on an expanded understanding of its customers’ needs. As business unit managers prepared their next round of strategy presentations for the Chairman, Welch told them all to redefine their market in such a way that their share was less than 10 percent. This released GE managers’ energy to grow their businesses with new ideas.

Slow Down. There is a reason that, over the years, you have lost your ability to listen. It feels too passive, like the opposite of action. It’s much faster to move to a decision based on the information you already have. But in doing so, you miss important considerations and sacrifice the opportunity to connect… It takes time to truly hear someone and to replay the essence of their thoughts back them so that both parties are clear on what was said. The payback is dramatic, but it comes over the long run.

Keep Yourself Honest. No habit is broken without discipline, feedback, and practice. As well as installing a personal mirror to reflect on your own behavior, find a colleague to give you honest feedback on how well you are tuning into the thoughts and ideas of your colleagues, managers, board of directors, and others. Explicitly lay out an exercise regime by which you will practice empathetic listening every day and strengthen your skills. Make a habit of asking yourself after interactions whether you understood the essence of what was said to you, the person’s point of view, their context, and their emotion. Also ask yourself whether that person knows that they were heard and understood.

We have found the same results in our approach that Dr. Charan advises:

Active listening and probing (with humility, not aggression) energizes groups, encourages them to reach consensus, and helps them arrive at new and better solutions.

About Michelle Smeby

Michelle Smeby is CEO of wHolistic Change, Inc. with more than 10 years of experience implementing enterprise solutions at Fortune 100 companies. Michelle specializes in helping corporations deliver transformational change.
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