How to Become a Better Listener

Viewed in Harvard Business Review

In the ongoing study and teaching of business management, so-called “soft skills” are receiving growing focus in recent years as companies seek to emphasize their importance and make up for the fact that they have been historically underestimated in both academic and organizational settings.

Speak, present and listen

 Communications is one such soft skill that is proving a beneficiary of this heightened focus. Yet, communications is really comprised of at least two very differing skills. The ability to speak and present, obviously, is one central component to it. The ability to listen, though, receives less focus and yet is arguably no less vital.

This could be a notable oversight.  “It’s never been more important—or more difficult—for leaders to be a good listener,” Robin Abrahams and Boris Groysberg write in this December 21 Harvard Business Review article.

Listening value has increased with remote working

The unprecedented value of listening skills, they contend, is due to the vastly growing trend toward remote work where, they observe, “we don’t get the nonverbal cues we’d pick up from an in-person conversation.” This, in turn, can become a perfect storm when combined with the fact that job turnover levels also are reaching new heights and employees who do not feel they are being heard and understood are more inclined to flee these organizations for new ones.

Listening impacts employee retention

In this respect, listening skills are essential to employee retention. Yet, there is no sign listening skills are receiving the proportionate focus in undergraduate business education their importance warrants. According to a 2015 study, the authors report, 78 percent of accredited undergraduate business schools list ‘presenting’ as a learning goal while only 11 percent identified ‘listening’ as such a goal. Implicit in this oversight on the academic level might be a tendency to view listening as a passive, not a pro-active, skill. But this would be the wrong perspective; listening requires dedicated focus and pro-active awareness.

Listening requires focus

To this end, Abrahams and Groysberg see pro-active listening as being comprised of three components: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.  As a functional skill, they contend, the improvement of one’s listening skills is really a lifetime undertaking where even minor improvements can prove consequential.

Repeat people’s last few words back to them

They offer nine tips to enhancing listening skills, but place special emphasis on their first such tip, they write: “Repeat people’s last few words back to them.” “If you remember nothing else, remember this simple practice does so much. It makes the person feel listened to, keeps you on track during the conversation, and provides a pause for both of you to gather thoughts or recover from an emotional reaction,” they write.

Nine tips

Nine tips point to the recognition that listening, like the fundamentals of other business management skills, does lend the skill of listening to ongoing academic focus and on-the-job development.

Listening is a manager’s critical soft skill.

Yet, the tendency to view oneself as a “good” or “bad” listener should be resisted. Just as listening is one component to one’s overall communication skills, pro-active listening itself is comprised of at least seven subskills, which the authors of this article detail and which point to listening as a skill that, even as a soft skill, does have objective components that suggest it warrants more focus as one of any manager’s critical skill sets.

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