Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

What Good Is Listening Anyway?

It’s a common refrain. In order to build a rapport with clients and customers, we must be “good listeners.” We must pay attention to what they’re saying and respond to their needs. But what does it really mean to be a good listener? And how is that different from other behaviors?

We’re taught to think that listening is passive, and speaking is active. But the best listeners know this is far from the truth. Truly listening to, and understanding, someone else requires just as much proactive engagement as speechifying – maybe more.

I’ve observed that good listeners set themselves apart with a few key habits. These behaviors come naturally to some, but they can be practiced or developed by anyone.

Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Be fully attentive.

To listen well, clear distractions. One common trait of all good listeners is that they make you feel like they have the time, attention, and focus to deal with the conversation directly in front of them.

2. Use the 80/20 rule.

In an advisory or management capacity, seek to listen 80% and speak 20% of the time. Of course, there are instances when the 80/20 rule is not practical, but it still can act as a reliable self-awareness monitor. It’s an easy indicator of whether you’re really listening or not.

3. Seek clarification.

Think of a conversation as a way to gather more and better information and keep the client talking. Ask questions like, “What else can you tell me about that?” or “What other possibilities have you considered?“ – open-ended questions that probe for greater detail. The more you know, the more informed your solutions.

Good listeners make you feel like they have the time, attention, and focus to deal with the conversation.

4. Summarize and paraphrase.

It’s amazing the cognitive distance that can be created by our individual perceptions. A great skill of listening is the ability to quickly summarize the other party’s thoughts to clarify what you’re hearing. Start with, “What I heard you say was…” and see in real-time if you’re accurately listening or not.

5. Listen for what’s NOT being said.

Are there unspoken emotions arising that you can pick up on via body language or tone? Do you notice any hidden assumptions that might be a logjam? Having a sense for what emotionally motivates a person’s communication can help you to operate above the “noise” and address what really matters.

6. Absorb all ideas before editorializing.

It’s human nature to be awed by our own brilliance. Before you give your ideas, be sure you’ve heard theirs. Don’t try to fix things too early. The great paradox is that the less you talk, the more brilliant you become!

Over To You

What other behaviors do good listeners practice?

More insights on: Clients, Collaboration

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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