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Listening And Speaking: The Leader’s Paradoxby Zenger Folkman August 19, 2017

Picture a well-known exceptional leader. We often think of these leaders within the context of them talking; perhaps giving an inspiring speech that rallies the troops, facilitating a discussion, or providing clear direction. However, Zenger Folkman's research has found that leaders with a preference for listening are rated as significantly more effective than those who spend the majority of their time holding forth.


Although most tend to picture senior leaders as talking rather than listening, my colleague Joe Folkman and I also found that leaders at a higher organizational level preferred listening more than supervisors lower down in the hierarchy. The graph below shows the percentage of leaders with a preference for listening.

Our Research

We recently analyzed the self-assessment results from 577 leaders on their preference for talking versus listening. We identified 104 leaders with a strong preference for talking and compared their results to 135 leaders who preferred listening.

We also collected effectiveness ratings on these leaders, using evaluations from managers, peers, direct reports, and others. On average, leaders were rated by 13 different raters. We measured leadership effectiveness on 16 differentiating competencies and examined the average rating from all rater groups.

We found that leaders with a strong self-preference for listening were rated as significantly more effective on 13 of the 16 competencies. The graph below shows the results for the two groups. All of these data were highly significant.

The Listening Advantage

The data is extremely compelling, showing that a preference for listening (and listening before talking) is directly tied to a leader’s effectiveness. Steven R. Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, expressed this principle in his advice to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Few doubted the wisdom of this advice; our results provide clear and metric evidence of the power of effective listening.

As we talk to leaders about how to be an effective listener, we frequently find that people know the typical tips and advice for listening better. The question then becomes, “If you know how to listen, why aren’t you doing it better?”

The short answer is, leaders don’t actually know how to effectively listen. To that end, here are a few tips we’ve compiled on ways to be better listeners.

7 Ways to Become a More Effective Listener

  1. When you have something important you want to say, wait for the optimum time. Having a good thought is important; injecting it at exactly the right moment can be important as well.
  2. Ask good questions. Good listening is much more than remaining silent while the other person talks. It requires asking good questions and showing genuine interest in people’s responses as well.
  3. Be a trampoline, not a sponge. Good listening goes beyond being able to repeat exactly what another person says; it also requires providing a new perspective. You are adding energy to the conversation. Become a trampoline by propelling the energy forward.
  4. Ask for feedback from others. The best listeners provide feedback to other people that includes interest, excitement, reactions, disagreements, and suggestions. Because the best conversations are not one-way, the ultimate dialog happens when both parties gain new information and perspective. The highest form of this principle comes from asking for feedback from the other person.
  5. Be curious. At the heart of good listening is the genuine interest that one person has in someone else’s ideas and story.
  6. Be aware of what your face is saying. Everyone has likely had another person read the wrong conclusions into an email or memo. The miscommunication is often cleared up by picking up the phone or, even better, by conversing with someone face-to-face. 80% of communication comes from the tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions that transmit all elements of the communication in whole.
  7. Trust that listening intently, prior to fully stating your position, will get you more than talking.

No matter your place in the organizational hierarchy, the message is clear: effective listening skills will propel your success.

This article was originally published on Forbes.


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