May 24, 2022
“I have a difficult question we need to discuss,” a client emailed us requesting an immediate phone call. Once on the call, the client asked the question, and one of us jumped in quickly to answer. The other cautiously interrupted and said, “Before my colleague gives you an answer to your question, could I ask you a few more questions?” He proceeded to ask questions like, “What was the situation that brought up this question?” and “What is happening in your organization that may have contributed to this situation.” These questions only took a few minutes, but they provided some much-needed context that improved the outcome of this unknowingly complex conversation.
While we relish solving problems quickly, that often results in jumping to conclusions. We assume what worked in the past for one situation can easily apply to another. Consider the long experience of sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Don’t we hope they’ll take the time to listen and ask the right questions that can lead to a correct diagnosis? We depend on their discipline to not jump to the first conclusion based on the diagnosis of the other five patients they saw that morning. Important conversations are a part of daily life, and they need to be tackled with less speaking and more listening.
Over the last few years, we have gathered data from over 18,000 leaders on their preference for speaking versus listening. While very few completely doubt the efficacy of listening, many leaders fail to see the remarkable value of being an excellent listener. Rather than taking the time to carefully understand the other person, 46% of respondents noted their preference to “translate their experience into practical, logical advice.” Predictably, 18% of the respondents indicated that “people frequently drop hints that they could be a better listener.”
Most of us have had the experience of being at a social gathering where another person droned on and on about an uninteresting topic. Or we have been caught in our office with a colleague complaining about problems at work which feels like a waste of our time. Listening can be boring, take valuable time, and is made even harder when people bring up uncomfortable topics.
Yet, while the challenges and difficulties with listening are readily apparent, we often do not understand the enormous benefits.
To better determine and quantify these benefits, we gathered 360-degree assessment data measuring leaders’ effectiveness at listening and other leadership behaviors from 4,218 leaders. As can be seen in the graph below, we divided these leaders into five groups based on the perceived effectiveness of their listening skills.
The two leadership behaviors showing the largest differences in these groups were “building relationships” and “generating trust. The graph below shows that leaders with the lowest effectiveness on listening (e.g., the bottom 10%) were rated at only the 13th percentile in “building relationships” and the 14th percentile on “generates trust.” Those in the top 10% were rated at the 88th percentile on both capacities.
The data reveals that it is the absence of our words that can strengthen our relationships and offer a better foundation of trust. On this topic, Peter Bregman wrote, “Silence is a greatly underestimated source of power. Because words can so often get in the way, silence can help you make connections.”
But we must be willing to slow down and stop speaking. We must be willing to give someone our full attention. Put away all the distractions. Not just be a sponge absorbing what they say, but as we said before, act as a trampoline that bounces others to a new level, both amplifying and energizing them. This level of listening has many unknown benefits that our research has uncovered.
Effective listening takes time and effort, but this research confirms that it has a significant payoff. Leaders who are skilled at listening not only end up being much more effective leaders, but also much more appreciated by friends, partners, and colleagues.
-Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman
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