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.
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.
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.
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.