Listening Effectively

In a Nutshell
        Almost everyone sincerely believes that he or she listens effectively.  Consequently, very few people think they need to develop their listening skills.  But, in fact, listening effectively is something that very few of us can do.  It's not because listening effectively is so difficult.  Most of us have just never developed the habits that would make us effective listeners.
        Research has found that by listening effectively, you will get more information from the people you manage, you will increase others' trust in you, you will reduce conflict, you will better understand how to motivate others, and you will inspire a higher level of commitment in the people you manage.

In This Issue

You Probably Don't Listen as Effectively as You Think You Do ... and You Probably Don't Know It
        A study of over 8,000 people employed in businesses, hospitals, universities, the military and government agencies found that virtually all of the respondents believed that they communicate as effectively or more effectively than their co-workers.1  (Could everyone be above average?)  However, research shows that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency.2  While most people agree that listening effectively is a very important skill, most people don't feel a strong need to improve their own skill level.3

Why Effective Listening Matters
        To a large degree, effective leadership is effective listening.  A study of managers and employees of a large hospital system found that listening explained 40% of the variance in leadership.4  That's a big correlation by social science standards (like r = .63).
        Effective listening is a way of showing concern for subordinates, and that fosters cohesive bonds, commitment, and trust.  Effective listening tends to reduce the frequency of interpersonal conflict and increases the likelihood that when conflicts emerge they will be resolved with a "win-win" solution.  In addition, if you listen to the people you manage, you will learn "what makes them tick."  When you know what makes them tick, you will be more effective at motivating them.  You can encourage them when they need encouraging, and you will know what kinds of things they value as rewards for a job well done (e.g., additional responsibility, public praise, autonomy, etc.).

What Effective Listening Is
        Effective listening is actively absorbing the information given to you by a speaker, showing that you are listening and interested, and providing feedback to the speaker so that he or she knows the message was received.  Delivering verbal communication, like writing a newsletter, involves trying to choose the right words and nonverbal cues to convey a message that will be interpreted in the way that you intend.  Effective listeners show speakers that they have been heard and understood.

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How the Most Skilled Communicators Respond When Listening
        The most skilled communicators match their responses to the situation.  In discussions with the people you manage, it helps to differentiate the coaching situations from the counseling situations.  Coaching is providing advice and information or setting standards to help your employees to improve their skills and their performance.  Counseling is helping subordinates recognize and address problems involving their emotions, attitudes, motivation, or personalities.
        The most common mismatch of response types to situations is the tendency a lot of us have--myself included--to give advice or deflect in a situation where counseling is appropriate.  When you are counseling, "reflecting" and "probing" are usually more appropriate responses than "advising" or "deflecting."
        Reflecting.  As mentioned above, when we listen we should show the other party that what they are saying to us is being heard.  Since we can think at about four times the speed that speakers can speak, our brains have a lot of capacity that can be used to process the meaning of what's being said.  Reflecting is paraphrasing back to the speaker what they said.  One of the things a lot of us find when we try to use this technique is that it's real a challenge.  We don't want to just parrot back what was said; we want to paraphrase.  It takes creativity to think of appropriate ways to paraphrase what we've heard.
        Reflecting can take other forms than paraphrasing back to someone what was just said.  For instance, a listener can summarize what he or she heard and also take the conversation a step further by asking a question for clarification or elaboration.
        One of the things we often notice when we reflect during a conversation is that the meaning we have ascribed to what we've heard has missed the speaker's intended meaning.  When speakers hear us reflect, they get a chance to correct any misunderstanding that we have.  That proves that this technique does truly clarify communication.
        For most of us, it takes a lot of practice before we become natural and effective at reflecting.  Our first few efforts may sound forced, phony, patronizing, or as one of my MBA students put it, "moronic."  However, that doesn't mean we should give up learning how to reflect.
        Probing.  In addition to reflecting, the most skilled communicators' responses in counseling situations involve a lot of probing.  Probing means asking for additional information.  Not all questions you might ask will be effective.  Avoid questions that challenge what has been said because that will put the speaker on the defensive (e.g., "How could you have thought that?").  In addition, a question that changes the subject before the current subject is resolved isn't effective communication.  Effective probing is nonjudgmental and flows from what was previously said.  Good probing questions ask for elaboration, clarification, and repetition (if, for instance, an important question you asked wasn't answered).
        Deflecting.  Deflecting responses shift the discussion to another topic.  When we deflect from what we've been told, rather than acknowledging it, we can unintentionally communicate that we haven't listened and that we aren't interested.  Deflecting shows that we're preoccupied with another topic.
        Many of us deflect unwittingly by sharing our personal experiences when we should be focusing on the other party.  Think about this from the speaker's perspective: You don't feel like you've been heard when you share a concern with someone and they respond by telling you about themselves.  The responder gives you the impression that they aren't even listening, and that they just want to talk about themselves.  Sometimes we mention our own experiences as a way of saying that we can relate to the speaker's experiences.  Our intention is to say, "Your not alone."  But, when we tell our stories we risk sending a message that we aren't listening and don't care.  Don't be a topper--the kind of person who can tell a story to top any story that they're told.  We all know a topper, don't we?  In a small way, toppers communicate that they are superior.  That's not supportive!
        This is not to say that sharing your experiences is never a helpful.  On the contrary, mentors often help their protégés by relating their own experiences as a way to reassure their protégés that their concerns are normal and that their problems are solvable.  But, in counseling situations, be careful to use deflecting only at appropriate times.
        Speakers may not know that you have heard and understood what they have said if you deflect by moving on to another topic or shifting the focus to yourself or your own experiences.
        Advising.  It can be insulting to give advice to someone who has shared his or her problems with you.  I used to work for a guy who would ask me daily, "How are things going?"  On the days when I would groan about a problem I was wrangling with, his response would be to suggest what I should do about it.  That really bothered me.  I value self-reliance and I like solving puzzles, so I don't like someone telling me how to solve my problems.  Maybe I'm hypersensitive.  But, I actually felt like that manager didn't respect my ability to solve my own problems.  I wanted the self-satisfaction for finding the solutions myself, and I wanted him to respect my problem-solving abilities.  His communication style didn't support that.  I'm sure the advice my manager was giving me was well intended.  Nevertheless, I didn't want to hear it.  So, I stopped telling him what was bothering me.  If he would have just listened instead of advising, I would have shared more and we would have built a stronger bond.  Instead, his advising caused me to clam up and it undermined his ability to understand what I was going through.
        Perhaps I was being too sensitive.  Nevertheless, reactions like mine are common enough that you will want to be careful to avoid giving unsolicited advice if you want to be an effective listener.  In fact, Deborah Tannen has found that this problem is particularly common between men and women in the workplace.5  Women often discuss their problems and concerns with men just as a means of developing interpersonal bonds.  When men respond by giving advice, they may believe they are being helpful to their female counterparts.  But, if no advice is solicited then providing it is a little presumptuous, and it actually undermines the opportunity to further develop a cohesive bond with that female coworker.
        I, as a man, have a real problem keeping my advice to myself.  When someone is telling me about a problem they're having, I can barely control the impulse to tell them what they should do.  But, I ought to know that people usually don't want my advice.  On average, people probably ask me for my advice about two or three times a month--that's it.  All the other times I give advice it is just because I like to.  When I give my unsolicited advice, I've stopped listening and started to dominate the dialogue.  (Imagine how frustrating that is for my wife and my students.)
        If you're like me and you like to give advice, try fighting the urge as long as you can.  Just reflect what you've hear and probe for additional information.  Then, when you think the time is right to provide your words of wisdom, say something like, "Let me know if you'd like some advice.  I've got some thoughts about that."  You might be surprised by how few people take you up on that offer.

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Typical Objections to These Effective Listening Techniques
        As I teach these principles to managers on and off campus, I hear a lot of objections to using them.  Here are three common objections:

Practicing This Management Skill
        Fortunately for those of us who want to develop our listening skills, we get lots of opportunities.  To develop your listening skills, plan to use the response type that you think you need to emphasize (e.g., reflecting) and plan to avoid using the response types that you want to de-emphasize (e.g., advising).  Then, after you have a conversation, evaluate how effective you were at giving good responses as a listener.  Identify what went well and where the opportunities for improvement are.  Think about what that challenges to being an effective listener were and how you can deal with those challenges more effectively next time.
        Monday mornings are a perfect time to practice your effective listening.  Just start a conversation with a co-worker or employee by saying, "How was your weekend?"  From there, just probe and reflect.  In ten minutes, you can actually get to know the other person a little better and show that you're interested in them.
        Kids seem to be willing to let us practice our effective listening.  Seems like if you ask kids questions, reflect their answers back to them and probe a little further, they really open up.  It's like you're their new best friend because you've shown an interest in them.  They'll forgive us if we sound a little patronizing--they're used to it.
        Making a tape recording of a conversation, if you can find a willing partner, can also help you evaluate your performance.  With a tape of a conversation, you can examine each response you give in detail, without relying on your memory.

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1.  Haney, W. V.  (1979).  Communication and interpersonal relations.  Homewood, IL: Irwin.
2.  Husman, R. C., Lahiff, J. M., & Penrose, J. M.  (1988). Business communication: Strategies and skills.  Chicago: Dryden Press.
3.  Spitzberg, B. H.  (1994).  The dark side of (in)competence.  In W.R. Cupach & B. H. Spitzberg (Eds.), The dark side of interpersonal communication.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
4.  Kramer, R.  (1997).  Leading by listening: An empirical test of Carl Rogers's theory of human relationship using interpersonal assessments of leaders by followers.  Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University.
5.  Tannen, D.  (1995).  Talking from 9 to 5: Women and men in the workplace: Language sex and power.  New York: Avon.

Additional Sources and References
        Robbins, S. P.  (2000). Managing today!, (2nd ed.).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall.
        Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S.  (2002).  Developing management skills, (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

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E-mail Your Comments
        Whether you are one of my former students or not, I invite you to share any insights or concerns you have regarding the topic of this newsletter or any other topic relating to management skills.  Please e-mail them to me.  Our interactions have been invaluable.  Every week, I learn something new from LeaderLetter subscribers!  Let's keep the conversation going.

A Good, Clean Joke
        Two blond guys were working on a house. The one who was nailing down siding would reach into his nail pouch, pull out a nail and either toss it over his shoulder or nail it in.  The other blonde, figuring this was worth looking into, asked, "Why are you throwing those nails away?"
        The first blonde explained, "If I pull a nail out of my pouch and it's pointed toward me, I throw it away 'cause it's defective. If it's pointed toward the house, then I nail it in."
        The second blonde got very upset and yelled, "You jerk! The nails pointed toward you aren't defective! They're for the OTHER side of the house!"

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