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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Underestimated Skill: Why We Need to Learn to Listen

Learning to listen – why this is important for a career and how it works, explains Dr. Max Neufeind.

Have you already tried Clubhouse? With the new audio app, people can come together in a virtual “room” with two clicks to discuss a wide variety of topics. Only the sound is transmitted, nothing distracts from the spoken word. 

Learning to listen: Most people (mistakenly) consider themselves good listeners

Our new columnist Dr. Max Neufeind is an occupational and organizational scientist and deals with the digital transformation of economy and society

When I first used the app, I was a little overwhelmed by the overwhelming number of discussions that were going on at the same time and all of which could be listened to. At the same time, I was fascinated by how many people were and are apparently ready to listen to these sometimes barely structured conversations for hours without having to express their own opinion. Which brings us to my topic for this week: listening. 

We live in a time when we are all constantly talking, posting, and broadcasting – we are not the best listeners. However, most people think of themselves as being good listeners. Just as most people are convinced that they are above-average drivers. We believe that good listening consists in not immediately interrupting the other person, nodding your head every now and then and inserting a “Mmh” every now and then.

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Most of the time we can hardly wait to finally give our counterpart our opinion or to make him happy with an alleged solution to his problem. Really good listeners behave very differently. Leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman examined thousands of participants in a leadership program to find out what constitutes those people who have been described by others as outstanding listeners.

What really makes great listeners

These super listeners not only sat quietly and nodded, but kept asking questions. But not in the sense of a competition in which both sides use the time of listening only to collect new arguments in order to expose the logic errors of the other. Rather, they suggested alternative ways of thinking or acting and asked constructive questions that led to new insights in the speaker. Super listeners strengthened the self-confidence of their counterpart and gave them the feeling of being in a safe environment in which all topics can be discussed openly. 

There are many advantages when bosses are good listeners

Being a bad listener may only mean that we offend our friends, family, or partner every now and then. Bad enough. In working life, however, poor listening can have dramatic consequences: Research shows that superiors who are good listeners enjoy a higher level of trust from their employees – and that colleagues with super listeners are significantly more satisfied with their job. 

Perhaps more importantly, the creativity in a team is significantly greater when the superiors are good listeners. Why? Because this increases the psychological security of the members of the team and they therefore dare to articulate new, unfamiliar and initially seemingly absurd ideas.

Why superiors often shy away from listening to their employees

Listening is part of the job description of every manager – even if it is exhausting and maybe feels inefficient. And yet many superiors, who may even be very good listeners in their private lives, fail in this discipline in the professional context. The Israeli organizational researcher Avi Kluger describes three main reasons for this: 

First of all, many supervisors worry that they will be viewed as weak by their co-workers if they practice the role of listener too much. Kluger calls this status fear. Supervisors who listen cannot lead through power and dominance, but must rely on the respect and appreciation of their employees. 

Second, listening simply takes time. Many superiors take on the role of listener during periods of great time pressure, but are often distracted by the lack of time – and then frustrated that listening is not leading to the desired result. 

And finally, listening always carries the risk of having to change your mind. Superiors are often subconsciously aware that they have to question their own assumptions and decisions if they listen too much to their employees – which can quickly become uncomfortable for managers.

5 rules for better listening

Of course, not every situation in everyday professional life requires the deepest form of listening. However, many situations in everyday working life would benefit if we understood listening for what it is: a craft that you have to learn and at which you can keep getting better. 

In the words of Ralph Nicol, a pioneer in the study of listening: “People have ears that hear very well. However, they have seldom acquired the necessary skills that would allow them to use those ears effectively for what is called listening. “

Therefore, here are my five rules for good listening, which you should definitely try out when you have the next conversation, be it in a professional or private context:

  1. When I listen, I listen. My smartphone does not exist at this time.

  2. I don’t interrupt until I’ve noticed that the other person has closed a thought. 

  3. At first I don’t judge what has been said.

  4. I do not spend the listening time polishing an answer that is supposed to show the weaknesses in the other person’s reasoning.

  5. I allow myself to believe that listening can change my assumptions and beliefs.

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