Listen up! How to sharpen your listening skills

Listening skills: one girls shouting at another trying to hear

‘Listening is at the front end of decision-making,’ says Bernard Ferrari, alumnus of McKinsey. It’s also ‘one of the most underrated and unappreciated leadership skills,’ according to Randy Conley.

It doesn’t matter how good your presentation skills are, or how effective your executive presence is – if you can’t listen (and therefore learn) from those around you, you’ll quickly crash and burn.

Luckily, listening skills can be learned. They need practice, however, and constant vigilance to stay immune to the pleasurable allure of dopamine, the hormone that’s released when we talk about ourselves.

four ways to sharpen your listening skills

Listening isn’t as simple as shutting up (although that’s pretty important too – you have to give people the room to think and speak). Active and effective listening means respecting the listener and deploying a range of listening skills:

1. Switch off the meter. ‘If a matter gets to your level it is probably worth spending some of your time on it,’ says John McLaughlin. Whether you’re watching the clock or planning what to say next – you have to switch off the meter running in your mind to listen properly.

More than that, you have to let go of your preconceptions. You can only benefit from listening if you’re willing to admit that you don’t already know everything.

2. ‘Pan for the nuggets’. This is Ram Charan’s phrase; he means look for key phrases, ideas and feelings that are worth interrogating further and which encapsulate what’s being said to you. You should then reflect them back to the speaker to confirm you’ve understood them correctly.

This requires active listening: ensuring that the discussion you are having as a listener is two-way. Nodding, note-taking, using affirmative words and asking clarifying questions all make sure that you as the listener understand exactly what is being said and, importantly, the other person feels that they have been heard and understood.

3. Nurture and challenge. A good listener is able to coax more from the speaker than even they knew they had to say. You can get speakers thinking on their feet and digging deeper with effective questioning, whether it’s leading, open or prompting.

You should also challenge the parameters of the conversation as then-CEO of GE, Jack Welch did when he told his business unit managers to redefine their market in such a way that their share was less than 10 percent. GE had already achieved its goal of being first or second in several of its businesses with exceptional margins and Welch faced the challenge of how to spur continued growth.

By expanding their understanding of GE’s customers’ needs, Welch’s business unit managers were able to generate ideas for new areas that GE could grow into. One idea was to grow GE’s services businesses. Today, GE has $200 billion in orders and commitments in its services business.

4. Develop your awareness. When you listen, you have to take in more than what is said. ‘Consider how your conversation partner’s life context informs the story being shared with you,’ says Ximena Vengoecha.

You also have to pay attention to nonverbal behaviours. Is the person nervous and repeating themselves? Maybe they disagree with you. Are you leaning in, smiling and nodding to show you’re engaged? Or are you shutting them down with your defensive pose?

PractiCe makes perfect

Knowing what to do, and actually doing it are two very different things. You need to set up an ‘exercise regime’ to practice your listening skills:

  • Find a colleague that will give you honest feedback.
  • Make a habit of asking yourself after interactions whether you understood the essence of what was being said to you, as Ram Charan recommends.
  • Look into Marty Nemko’s ‘Traffic Light Rule‘ and limit your talking to 30 seconds at a time.
  • Recognise that you may feel it’s inefficient to take the time to listen. It’s not. Fast-paced business isn’t always best.

Finally, think about the last great conversation you had and think about how you felt at the end of that conversation. Listening to and thinking about someone else’s ideas widens your own perspective and takes you out of your limited inner monologue.

So if you’re struggling to put your story to one side and sharpen your listening skills, just remember: being a good listener doesn’t just do good, it feels good too.

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