Why Good Listening Is a Critical Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs
Here are seven ways to improve your listening skills ... and your business.
Listening can be a matter of life and death. Imagine a distracted hostage negotiator or an airline pilot who tunes out air traffic control. Consider an ER physician who fails to hear a critically ill patient's symptoms. These are extreme examples, but listening well is also a game-changing skill for leaders and entrepreneurs.
Only 10 percent of us listen effectively, research shows. Often, we're technically listening — remaining silent while someone else speaks — but our minds are busy with other thoughts. As author Stephen R. Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."
At my company, JotForm, listening has consistently driven our growth. I do my best to stay open and hear our 150 employees. Listening to our customers, not our competition, brought us a million new users in a single year. Most of us think we're good listeners, but mastering this deceptively challenging skill can make or break your business.
The power of listening well
In a 2016 survey, Bain & Company asked 2,000 employees to rank 33 different leadership traits. Participants picked "centeredness" — the ability to be mindfully present — as the top characteristic. Being present and silencing our inner dialogue while giving our full attention to others makes them feel both heard and valued.
As a leader, it's essential that you ensure that all the voices on your team receive equal air time — especially the quieter ones. For example, back in 2006, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? had $60 million in revenue and over 200 employees in its headquaters. The company was thriving, but the VP of Finance repeatedly warned the leadership team to minimize spending. A quiet introvert by nature, his advice was drowned out by louder personalities who ignored his warnings.
Eventually, the junk-hauling firm grew too fast and ran out of cash. It struggled through the 2008 economic downturn but lived to change its ways. "As a leadership team, we learned that we had to listen and pay attention to everyone," COO Cameron Herold told Harvard Business Review, "regardless of their communication style."
We tend to value speaking over listening, especially among leaders and founders, who are often typecast as extroverted, outgoing mavericks. We admire people who can clearly express what they're thinking the moment it crosses their minds. But listening is also a superpower: It enables you to gain new perspectives, to hear what's not being said, and to learn what you don't know you're missing.
Three different types of listening
Not all conversations are created equal. Organizational development advisor Melissa Daimler says there are three different levels of listening, beginning with internal listening. This occurs when we're absorbed in our own thoughts and simply pretend to hear the other person. Focused listening means we're listening but not fully connecting; we often miss nonverbal cues and nuances. The top level is 360-degree listening, which occurs when we're not only listening to what someone says but also how they say it — as well as what they don't say.
Cognitive bias might lead us to think we're always hitting the 360-degree mark, but we often fall short. That's when it's helpful to have a litmus test. Based on research and data analysis, leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman determined that the best listeners share four qualities:
Great listeners ask follow-up questions and probe deeper into the topic. We often think that silence indicates deep focus, but good listening is a two-way dialogue.
Showing support and confidence ensures a more positive experience for everyone. Great listeners boost the other person's self-esteem during the conversation.
When feedback flows smoothly in both directions, neither party is likely to become defensive. In contrast, poor listeners use their own silence to prepare a correction or contradiction, which makes the exchange feel combative.
Strong listeners provide constructive, considerate feedback. When a colleague knows you're listening attentively, they're more likely to take your suggestions seriously.
As Zenger and Folkman explain, good listeners are less like sponges and more like trampolines: "They are someone you can bounce ideas off of and, rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not by merely passively absorbing but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline."
Listening well is more than a matter of good manners; being mindful and genuinely curious can help you to uncover new opportunities, discover fresh perspectives and build a stronger, more resilient business.
Related: 5 Ways Listening Grows Your Business
How to be a better listener
When we're tired, distracted or stressed, it's easy to let our attention slip. We're all human. When I realize that I haven't heard half the words my colleague has uttered, I use these seven techniques to improve my listening.
1. Make eye contact
It might sound obvious, but eye contact shows respect — and confidence. Don't forget to close or shut down your devices, and turn off all notifications, too. Give the other person your undivided attention.
2. Let them finish
Allow your partner to complete their sentence or thought. Don't even think about your response until they've finished speaking. Thoughtful pauses are fine and can actually promote even more insightful conversations.
3. Listen for what's not being said
An estimated 80 percent of all communication is nonverbal. As you listen, watch for your partner's facial expressions, posture, eye contact, gestures and breathing. Don't be afraid to (sensitively) ask questions that address these clues. If you can schedule video chats instead of phone calls, always choose face-to-face interactions.
4. Ask open-ended questions
Watch great interviewers, such as Oprah, Barbara Walters, David Frost or Larry King, and you'll notice that their questions can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Asking someone, "What did you think about the project?" will elicit a richer response than "Did you enjoy working on the project?"
5. Make time for reflection
A calendar crammed with back-to-back meetings doesn't leave room for reflection. Entrepreneurs wear many different hats, but if you can, take a few minutes to reflect on each conversation before starting the next. Build it into your schedule and make notes to help process your thoughts.
6. Watch your ratios
It's good to notice how much you listen versus speak in a typical exchange. Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, suggests a 2:1 ratio of listening to speaking, but others suggest a 80/20 split.
7. Build a team of great listeners
Skilled listeners learn faster, work well in teams and tend to enhance the organizational culture. They also have better interactions with customers and clients. If you're hiring, watch for people who listen well and catch nonverbal cues.
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