The quiet art of being a good listener

by | Oct 20, 2014 | News

Simon Hayward from Cirrus comments in the FT

A study by Columbia Business School published in 2012 found that leaders’ powers of persuasion rest as much on skilful listening as on articulacy. Yet many business people struggle to listen; and the more senior they are, the worse the effect may be. As James Heskett, emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, says: “Unless the leader is good at listening, not much listening goes on, because people watch [the boss] and emulate.”

Even organisations that pride themselves on being open to ideas can develop cloth ears. One way to counteract the temptation to listen selectively is to explore any contradictions.

Active listening often becomes harder as executives take on bigger roles. One problem is that no one tells them things they might not want to hear. Another is purely physiological: between 45 and 65 years of age, the prime demographic for board appointments, many people experience hearing loss. They may not even be aware of it, but it is forcing the brain to work harder to follow discussions, to the detriment of cognitive performance.

Another hindrance to leadership listening is subordinates’ reluctance to speak out, they do not want to appear insubordinate, so the boss ends up dominating the discussion. To counteract this, Simon Hayward, CEO of leadership consultancy Cirrus, recommends stopping to ask “telling questions” that probe for people’s thoughts, before wading in with your own viewpoint. But the tone should be respectful, as people who feel threatened often retreat into silence. Techniques that help put people at ease include “leaning forward to express interest and mirroring what people say to demonstrate understanding”.

Instead of merely listening to people’s words, watch their behaviour. What people say, in other words, is not always what they do. As well as listening, it is important to observe.

© The Financial Times 2014

Click here to read this article in full on the FT website.

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