Listening Article

McKinsey Quarterly has just posted a good article on the importance of listening for executives. Listening is not only one of the most important skills in corporate culture, but sadly also one of the most under appreciated.  One of my personal quests has been to increase my listening skills. Though I’ve made baby steps of progress, I’ve seen a huge amount of value from an active listening practice.

The article lays out three behaviors that help with listening: show respect, keep quiet, and challenge assumptions. If I were going to pick key pillars of listening, the first two would definitely be on there with the third one being mentioned as a result of effective listening. That said, here are some recent examples from my life for each of these.

Show Respect

I was meeting with a producer about starting a new project.  He had spent the last month working on a plan and was presenting it to me.  I had some legitimate worries that I’d expressed to him a couple times already, but had assumed they were being ignored.  Luckily I realized my bias beforehand and so instead of going in thinking of the worries, I would go in assuming the producer had heard me, and was someone who could handle the project.

Going in to a meeting assuming someone is going to fail is a pretty big vote of no-confidence and shows a complete the lack of respect.  Putting myself in his shoes, I wouldn’t want to have spent a month working on a proposal without really being listened to and fairly evaluated based on the results of the work. Suffice it to say, he did rock it out of the park, had completely quelled any worries I had, did an awesome job listening as I brought up new points, and I’m very excited about working with him and seeing the results of an awesome project. I firmly believe that had I not challenged my bias beforehand, I would have done him, and the project, a disservice by not greenlighting it, or micromanaging decisions.

Keep Quiet

In the McKinsey article the author says a good listening benchmark is the 80/20 rule. That 80% of the time is spent with the other person speaking while you try to listen 20% of the time.  Additionally, that 20% of the time should be spent clarifying and questioning the listener more than spouting off your own beliefs.

In another meeting that day I effectively applied the 80/20 rule. Someone in the company had been having a tough time, and I was certain I saw and understood the problem.  Turns out I had been wrong, and after listening to how she was viewing the situation, it became pretty clear that the solutions I (and everyone else) had saw were incorrect. The real problem was everyone was trying to solve different problems and not communicating that properly.  A little bit of listening and I was able to point out to this person a new way of looking at the world, and have been espousing that view to others with the same challenge.

Challenge Assumptions 

I give caution to the idea that challenging assumptions is a behavior of good listening. Challenging assumptions is the result of great listening, not a key behavior. That said, if you’re not understanding what people’s assumptions are, then you’re not really listening.  In the case above, everyone was solving different problems and wasn’t listening to the base assumptions.  If you can’t really get down to the deeper assumptions of what someone is trying to communicate, then only hearing the words isn’t really listening. The other drawback to having “challenge assumptions” as a key listening behavior is that it’s possible to spend a conversation challenging assumptions with questions that are really statements.


    • Adriano Parrotta
    • March 6th, 2012

    I accept that. Good perspective.

    • Adriano, got any examples of listening (or not listening) that you think are applicable?

        • Adriano Parrotta
        • March 8th, 2012

        Contract negotiations have traditionally been my Achilles heel. Having been taught in the art of the stock broker, it had been quite easy for me to charge into a meeting with a set of demands that I ‘absolutely’ had to achieve. Nothing that was spoken about by the other party would change my attitude, as I would effectively tune out anything extraneous and simply focus on parts of the conversation that satisfied my goal. This obviously obliterated the first rule, as I would not show any respect to the legitimate concerns of the speaker. From there, keeping quiet was difficult, as I would feel it necessary to cut them off at points that I saw fit to interject my sales pitch. Putting these classical sales techniques to use helped me close the deals. However, many of these relationships were built on friction and it made managing expectations and customer service related issues more difficult than necessary in the long term.

        Over the last few years, I have been effectively putting the notions you mention in your article to work. It has allowed me to have a more balanced approach to dealing with potential partners. By actively listening and acknowledging their concerns, we are able to have a true dialog and come up with terms that are equitable for both parties. Not only has this tact been more successful in getting the deals done, it has created long term relationships beyond the single deal which has provided intangible value to both my professional and personal life.

    • Ashley
    • March 7th, 2012

    What do you recommend in terms of getting rid of the mental baggage that blocks you from accepting new ideas?

  1. Ashley, do you mean preconceived mental baggage or do you mean pesky thoughts that pop up while someone is speaking? And by pesky, I mean the irrelevant thoughts about things not pertaining to the subject at hand.

    • Ashley
    • March 7th, 2012

    Actually, I meant the former – “preconceived mental baggage,” – but I’m also guilty of wondering thoughts. So, to you I ask, how do you stop yourself from mindlessly thinking about irrelevant thoughts, in addition to the skepticism faced when someone is presenting an idea, or even a solution, (the lack of respect you mentioned in the first paragraph.) This also has nothing to do with their position or status, I just tend to be skeptical of everyone and accept the notion that “doing it myself means doing it right.” But that’s not fair, to me or anyone else. Its a block. A mountain really.

  1. March 8th, 2012

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