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  • Joel Werner

3 Ways Executives Can Improve Their Listening Skills and Why It Matters

While aspiring executives need to know how to articulate and promote their views, knowing how to listen is also key to informing their decisions. Yet, we spend inordinately more time learning how to articulate ourselves than we do learning how to be better listeners.

Bernard Ferrari, the author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Penguin, March 2012), describes listening as “the front end of decision making" and says it can often be what distinguishes success from failure in business ventures.

Ferrari advocates taking an active and disciplined approach to probing and challenging information to build a knowledge base of fresh insights that will ultimately improve the quantity and quality of organizational knowledge, not to mention prolong the career of those executives able to cultivate the habit. Read on to learn how to improve your listening skills for the betterment of the workplace.

1. Demonstrate Respect

Savvy executives recognize that others often hold the know-how to develop solutions but may need help drawing out the critical information to examine it in a new light. In Ferrari's opinion, the first requirement of a good listener involves respecting the potential of junior colleagues to provide insights in areas remote from their role or expertise. That doesn’t mean not asking tough questions—just the opposite, in fact. The objective is to encourage the flow of information and ideas that will lead others toward a better solution.

Ferrari relates how the former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, John McLaughlin, would often end conversations with colleagues by asking, “Is there anything left that you haven’t told me . . . because I don’t want you to leave this room and go down the hall to your buddy’s office and tell him that I just didn’t get it.” This served to convey the deputy director’s expectation of receiving a complete body of information, but at the same time, it communicated his respect for his colleagues by acknowledging, with humility, that he may not have asked all the right questions.

2. Be Quiet

Ferrari has a unique variation of the 80/20 rule when it comes to conversations. He tries to allow his conversation partner to talk 80 percent of the time while talking only 20 percent himself. He also tries to limit his 20 percent to posing questions rather than advocating his views. That's because he believes that you can't really listen if you’re too busy talking or trying to formulate your next response.

Improving your ability to stay quiet will also allow you to use silence more effectively. Ferrari relates how he once observed a CEO of an industrial company use thoughtful moments of silence during sales meetings to elicit information from junior teammates. Their contribution added to the richness of the discussion and ultimately led to a more meritocratic solution.

Additionally, we are more likely to observe nonverbal cues in our conversation partners when we are quiet. When someone's body language belies what they are verbalizing, it is clear that further questioning is necessary. Taking the time upfront to understand the cause of the discrepancy can avoid you from plowing forward with costly solutions that don't address the underlying issues.

3. Allow Your Assumptions to Be Challenged

Executives tend to be strong personalities, often with even stronger worldviews. To become good listeners, they must demonstrate respect for their conversation partners. Still, more than this, they must be prepared to undergo a more profound mindset shift: a willingness to embrace ambiguity. This is because, unless you are open to exiting a conversation having had your beliefs fundamentally changed, can you really be said to be listening?

To illustrate this point, Ferrari uses Arne Duncan, the former US Secretary of Education, as an example of such a listener. First, Duncan surrounded himself with strong, tough people, and he didn't accept silence or complacency from them or anyone. Second, he impressed upon his team that their goal was not to reach a common viewpoint but rather a common action.

To get his colleagues’ creative juices flowing, Duncan regularly used the technique of altering a single fact or assumption to see how the team’s approach changed. For example, instead of a well-established 10 percent customer attrition rate, he’d ask about making it 20 percent or even 50 percent. Once it was clear the conversation had moved into a hypothetical realm, people felt free to challenge other underlying assumptions, often to significant effect.

Throughout his long and illustrious consulting career, Ferrari has observed that good listeners are more likely to make better decisions based on better-informed knowledge than those less skilled at listening to others. We can all aspire to better listening by adopting an attitude of respect for our conversation partners, remaining quiet when they talk, and being genuinely open to having our assumptions challenged.

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