You Think You’re a Great Listener? You’re Probably Not!
The last time you called tech or customer support, did the experience lead to you becoming calmer and more reassured, or infuriated and frustrated? If you are like me or the vast numbers of others surveyed by professionals investigating this, you were probably angrier, more frustrated and irate at the end of the call than you were when you first called. Given the purpose of tech support – ostensibly to help the frustrated customer and provide needed assistance – that seems like the wrong outcome.
The usual dynamic of a tech support phone calls includes the operator employing several learned behaviors that are recognizable to all of us as the artifacts of formal customer service training. They use our name (often mispronouncing it) much more than is normal; they repeat what we have said almost verbatim; and they stay calm regardless of our emotional state, often so much so that it seems robotic. These are part of the arsenal of behaviors that are taught in various courses addressing listening skills. Almost anyone who has attended a management or sales seminars has learned “active listening”. The idea is well-founded. To be successful in management, sales, relationships, coaching and so forth, it’s really important to listen in a way that makes others comfortable, and that allows for productive dialogue in the workplace. But there is new research into listening that suggests that active listening as learned falls short of producing the desired result.
In our roles as leaders, coaches and managers we have specific goals in the conversations we have with colleagues, subordinates or clients. We want to move the action forward, resolve problems, act as a resource and reinforce great work. In active listening training the skills we learn include using the name of our interlocutor, listening quietly without interruption, nodding and saying “hmmm”, repeating back what we have heard, and trying not to offer solutions. Surprisingly, new research shows that this kind of active listening falls short of producing those results. So what should we be doing instead?
In large surveys of executives who experienced various kinds of listening, conventional active listening didn’t fare well. It turns out that the kind of listening that seems to yield preferable results suggest listening in a way that is somewhat more deliberately engaging. This is a bit subtle, but the difference is important, especially if you operate in a coaching or advisory capacity with those you lead. When we are listening keenly we do not naturally just stay quiet. In fact, if you think about the conversations that have been most satisfying to you as the speaker, you were not effectively delivering a monologue to a silent listener. To the contrary, your listener was probably interrupting with questions of clarification or asking for more information. That is one of the first findings of this study. So listening silently and nodding is out. Asking clarifying questions and for more information is in!
Another quality of great listeners is their ability to confer on their conversant a sense of personal power. The great listener is giving feedback that makes the other person feel more confident and stronger. The less effective correlate to this is a common Achilles heel for some of us. If we listen and offer corrections or interrupt to suggest the speaker is wrong about something, we diminish the person’s confidence. Speaking to someone who behaves like that can feel like a gauntlet. So providing the alternative kind of reinforcement builds the strength of those with whom we speak and allows them to work out their own corrective measure without our explicit help. This particular point is reinforced by new findings on what makes a great team. The most important quality of great teams is “emotional safety”. That sense of safety begins with someone who listens to us without finding fault or leaping to correct at every occasion.
Great listeners also have a keen sense of empathy. They are able to read non verbal cues, and truly sense the experience of the person speaking. By using all of the information they are seeing and hearing, they can understand the emotional content of the speaker far more deeply than mere words can convey. One of the ways that they do this effectively is by really focusing their attention on the conversation. Great listeners will deliberately turn off phones and background noise, close the door to avoid interruptions and give their full attention to the conversation. Along with creating a sense of importance for the discussion that also allows for real attentiveness to everything being communicated, both in words and by other means.
In contrast with the notion of good listeners never offering solutions or solving the problem, a nuanced variant seems to be more effective. Great listeners bring our attention to alternative views or ways of thinking about our concerns. They may suggest a different perspective, or offer a new way to think about something. That isn’t to say that a good listener solves the problem – but a great listener will open the conversation and make a discovery of something being possible. You could say that a great listener becomes a collaborator. They act like a team mate and the conversation may yield something greater than the delivery of information or sentiment from one person to another. Instead, a synthesized new reality that resolves something can emerge.
These findings can guide all of us on being more powerful teammates, leaders and colleagues. If we take them to heart we arrive at new behavioral notions of what makes a great listener. Now if only we could get tech support folks to try these ideas!
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