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active listening for the win

Writing for Psychology Today, Sherrie Bourg Carter contends that while we are taught “to listen to our parents and to listen in school…few of us are taught good listening—the active, disciplined kind of listening that helps us examine and challenge the information we hear in order to improve its quality and quantity, and thereby improve our decision-making.” You don’t have to be a psychologist to know this kind of listening is both crucial and uncommon.

I’ve tried several techniques to improve my own listening, but the ones that work best for me boil down to three behaviors (aptly described by McKinsey alumnus and chairman of Ferrari Consultancy, Bernard Ferrari): talking less than you listen, challenging assumptions, and being respectful. The great thing is, you can apply these behaviors to most anything, and anyone—not just executives—can benefit from practicing them.

  1. Talk less than you listen.
    It’s difficult to lead a conversation—or listen—when other participants are only focused on their agenda. My six-month-old son would agree—he tells me what he’s thinking and it’s like I only care about changing diapers. But really, I’m paying more attention than he thinks: his tone, his body language, his gestures and expressions and inflection. Who knows, he may be destined for great listening.While I’m grateful my day job involves collaborating with adults who can comprehend words, understanding the unspoken still matters. As Ferrari points out, “When we remain silent, we improve the odds that we’ll spot nonverbal cues we might have missed otherwise.” That’s the difference between hearing and perceiving. If you want to be a more effective communicator, try making the most of your talking with meaningful questions, then absorb everything you can.
  1. Challenge assumptions.
    Ferrari asserts that good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation. In my experience, good listening frees up the mental room needed to validate what you’re hearing as well as challenge your own beliefs. This is fundamental to deeper understanding and unearthing “what ifs.”For instance, I have a charming sister-in-law who’s always checking in about plans for tomorrow, the coming weekend, etc. She also has a learning disability, and for the longest time I assumed her repetitive “What are we going to do today?” questions stemmed from poor short term memory or something else I couldn’t do anything about. She may sound like a broken record sometimes, but I didn’t want to sound like a jerk for asking why. Eventually, I brought this up with my wife, and learned something unexpected: my sister-in-law struggles to understand the concepts of before and after. Cue the lightbulb. No wonder she keeps asking—no one wants to miss out! The more we talked, the better I understood what I can do to help her FOMO at bay. It’s a good thing I listened—and then asked why.
  1. Be respectful.
    I’m not going to harp on themes of karma or destiny, but when it comes to marketing, I believe everyone at the table has something to offer. Of course, some people are more inclined to speak up and often, and others less so, but everyone should be heard. It never ceases to surprise me when more introverted contributors drop brilliant ideas when you least expect it. Perhaps these people were born good listeners?I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor some very smart people, and I’ve realized the best thing I did to support them was listen to help them connect the dots. Managers and mentors are so often expected to be omniscient beings, but I think the best ones help draw out critical information and put it in a new light.

Good listening is contagious.
When you participate in conversation with active listening, people notice. People want to emulate it. It clarifies ambiguity and breathes fresh ideas into conversation, and that’s good for everyone. If you’re not quite convinced, here’s a parting thought from our friend Bernard. “Good listening, in my experience, can often mean the difference between success and failure in business ventures (and hence between a longer career and a shorter one).”

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