The Discipline of Listening

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As the up-and-coming vice president and CEO candidate for a Fortune 500 technology corporation sat before the CEO for his annual review, he was baffled to discover that the feedback from his peers, customers, direct reports, and particularly from board members placed unusual emphasis on one potentially devastating problem: his listening deficit. This executive was widely considered among the best and brightest in his company, but it was evident that this issue needed immediate attention if he ever hoped to advance to the top spot.

He wasn’t alone in that regard. My knowledge of corporate leaders’ 360-degree feedback indicates that one out of four of them has a listening deficit—the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers, and if it’s the CEO with the deficit, derail the company. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Despite today’s fast-paced business environment, time-starved leaders can master the art of disciplined listening. Conventional advice for better listening is to be emotionally intelligent and available. However, truly good listening requires far more than that. As you move toward truly empathetic listening, consider these tips:

Pan for the nuggets. I saw how Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell, did this. Sitting down with a business unit leader presenting him with information about a $300 million dollar technical investment opportunity, Bossidy divided a sheet of paper about three-quarters across. On the larger left side of the paper, he scribbled detailed notes; on the smaller right side, he occasionally jotted down two or three words, capturing what he perceived to be the key insights and issues being brought to his attention. It was a simple technique that disciplined him to listen intently for the important content and focus follow-up questions on points that really mattered. Whether or not this is your method, you should train yourself to sift for the nuggets in a conversation. Then let the other person know that they were understood by probing, clarifying, or further shaping those thoughts. The benefits of this go beyond ensuring that you heard it right: first, the person on the other end of the conversation will be gratified that you are truly grasping the essence of their thoughts and ideas; second, this gratification will motivate and energize them to create more thoughts and solutions. Listening opens the door to truly connecting and is the gateway to building relationships and capability.

Read the full post at HBR.org.

 

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