04 Feb 2014  What Do YOU Think?

Has Listening Become a Lost Art?

Summing Up: Managers may have ears, but do they use them? Jim Heskett's readers offer opinions on why listening might be a lost art.

 

Summing Up


When Is Listening Not a Good Strategy?

Like a good case debate, the discussion of the question of whether listening is a lost art was not one-sided. What was clear was how important people felt listening is to effective leadership.

As Shari Morwood put it, "It starts at the top-if we as management don't listen or don't know how, we can't tap the full power of the amazing talent in our own organizations. Listening is learning." Rosa Urtubi added that "listening is assuming the responsibility, generosity to do something with whatever you hear. After all it is someone's gift to you." Wendy Zito believes that "when you feel you are being listened to then it helps you connect to the other person but it also helps you hear yourself."

Gael raised the question to a more universal level with her comment: "Listening to oneself requires sometimes crude and painful honesty that most people feel they can't afford." That is why, she continued, it is so important to have real friends with good memory who can be our sounding boards. "Listening to others works better if you can show empathy and put yourself in the other peoples' shoes."

Several argued that the skill of listening is on the wane. "I fear that social networks may make the problem worse," commented Gamaliel Pascual. "The technology may be hardwiring a younger generation to create virtual tribes where the congregation is based on shared biases/values." Allan Torng said, "Society has become too focused on looking for 'positive responses' … instead of finding out how we can do things better by listening and responding to 'negative responses.'"

Others were not so sure. Tema Frank said she is not convinced that our ability to listen is any worse than it has been in the past. "The problem is that most people are terrible listeners, and we are all so time pressed that we are reluctant to take the time that is required to really listen to others." Dennis Nelson added: "The art of communication, which includes listening, has always been a problem. What is different is that the impact of miscommunications becomes more apparent more quickly in today's knowledge and highly interactive society…."

KB raised an interesting point with this question: "How many times (do) you have an answer as soon as you heard the main topic, suddenly your mind stopped listening and started developing your argument?" A discussion leadership strategy at Harvard Business School is based on this assumption: It is that a discussion leader should avoid calling on students whose hands have been in the air for several minutes. The assumption, which is nearly always borne out, is that they will bring the discussion back to where it was when they raised their hand, the point at which they stopped listening to what was being said by other students.

Others posed counter-questions that are important to consider as well. For example, Aim suggested, "I think the right question here is, what makes people think not listening is OK? … Or even better, are there any situations that would require you to not listen deliberately?" Wayne Brewer provided one response to that one when he said, "Maybe companies (and individuals) are figuring out that listening to customers is not as profitable as other forms of interaction. There is at least one book that points out the counter-intuitive relationship between success and listening to customers: The Innovator's Dilemma.

Whether or not that is an accurate representation of Clay Christensen's book, it raises another interesting question: When is listening not a good strategy? What do you think?

Original Article

The week that I write this, I needed help programming a television set for recording purposes. Before being connected with the cable company service representative, I agreed to provide telephonic feedback about the service after my call. The call went miserably, in large part because I couldn't understand what the rep was saying. After 30 minutes, it was clear that my time was running out, and I was shunted off the call quickly with little assurance that I had programmed my television set correctly.

Several minutes later, the automated call came for the questionnaire. A recorded voice thanked me for cooperating and assured me that the poll would take only two minutes. The first question was, "On a scale of 1 (low) and 5 (high) how would you rate your overall experience?" I pressed the "1" on my phone. Whereupon the automated voice thanked me for my cooperation and hung up, consuming only about ten seconds of the two minutes.

Having studied and written about the value of "listening posts" in business, I concluded that the company's management wasn't interested in listening.

In his new book Quick and Nimble, based on more than 200 interviews, Adam Bryant concludes, that, among other things, managers need to have more "adult conversations" —conversations needed to work through "inevitable disagreements and misunderstandings" —with our direct reports. Such conversations require careful listening.

In the same book he reports that CEOs expressed major concerns about the misuse and overuse of e-mail, something that they feel encourages disputes to escalate more rapidly than if face-to-face conversations had taken place instead. The latter, however, would require people to listen.

Edgar Schein, known primarily for his work on corporate culture, pursues the subject from a different direction in a little book, Humble Inquiry. In it, he asks and answers a question we discussed here several months ago of why CEOs talk too much and listen too little. And he proposes an antidote, something he calls "the gentle art of asking instead of telling," describing the kinds of questions designed to elicit useful information. At the same time, according to Schein, the mere act of asking, if done sincerely, requires that the questioner make himself temporarily vulnerable to the person being questioned. This in turn, builds trust so lacking in many organizations today.

There's a catch, however. It requires that the questioner know how to listen, something many CEOs have forgotten.

The question is brought closer to home in a new book by Daniel DeSteno, The Truth About Trust. DeSteno presents evidence from the world of psychology that we don't even listen to ourselves. As a result, we shouldn't trust anything that we say or plan. He cites studies that conclude that people deceive themselves into thinking they will do things in the future that, when the time comes, they have no intention of doing. Further, we often deny that we ever expressed the intention in the first place.

Am I imagining that this is a growing problem, or have I just been picking up the wrong books lately? Has it always been like this? Are we forgetting how to listen? If so, what are the reasons? What do you think?

To Read More:

Adam Bryant, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation , Macmillan, 2014.

David DeSteno, The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More, Hudson Street Press, 2014.

Edgar H. Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2013.

Comments

    • SUMAN
    • MANAGER, WBSEDCL

    Without a proper feedback system it's hard to manage further development focused to the customer, in a long run telling that is pushing your capabilities without proper feedback or orientation to the customer will not help for a sustainable growth. When you or an organization know the imbibed strength and weakness then asking should also be such planned that it will project your strength more then your weakness and project it in such a way that the opposite person is convinced to your strength and oversee the weakness.

     
     
     
    • Steve Chriest
    • CEO, Open Advance, Inc.

    The very best definition of listening I've ever heard is this: "Listening is not doing anything that interferes with seeing." This may at first sound peculiar; but the definition includes the notion that listening incorporates all the senses. When we are truly listening, the other senses aren't diverted in another direction. Instead, they are part of one hundred percent attention, which is required for real listening. My regular advice to myself as I strive to improve my listening: Do nothing but listen. Just listen.

     
     
     
    • Tema Frank
    • eMarketing Mama, Frank Online Marketing and Web Mystery Shoppers Inc.

    I'm not convinced that our ability to listen is any worse than it has been in the past. Particularly not at the CEO level. The problem is that most people are terrible listeners, and we are all so time pressed that we are reluctant to take the time that is required to really listen to others.

    At the CEO level, they've also had years of being rewarded for being decisive, and taking the time to listen to underlings rather than make and announce a decision when they think they know the right answer would be counterintuitive.

     
     
     
    • Dennis Nelson
    • ICO, RM, IM, SFS

    The art of communication, which includes listening, has always been a problem. What is different is that the impact of miscommunications becomes more apparent more quickly in today's knowledge and highly interactive society. In fact, being willing to listen and learning to listen are only the first steps. The speaker and listener(s) need to have common contexts and jargons for an actual communication to occur.

    Picture three people in a room. Persons A and B are conversing and agreeing: the third, C, says "I don't get it. I don't even understand what you are talking about" A now talks to C who then says "now I get it." Wherein B says to A and C "I'm glad we all get it now; but I didn't understand what you were saying to each other." All three were speaking English, but the lifelong contexts of the three speakers and their respective jargons only overlapped to limited degrees. Person A obviously had contexts and jargon common to person B & C even though B & C contexts and jargons were more different from each other. Compound this example with personal preferences for seeing, hearing or feeling messages ... and so on...not to mention physical "hearing" problems, and listening is less about a lost or disappearing art then it is about truly being an art to be consciously acquired.

    Stovepiped societies of old required specific and limited hearing enabled people to be able to repeat activities and processes in volume. Today's knowledge society requires expanding types and volumes of hearing to enable people to interact more, be flexible, and be in almost a constant state of change. Diversification and international coordination has added additional dimensions.

    I remember the employee panic when the employees in several organizations first learned they were to be reorganized into teams as opposed to historically working alone or in stovepipes. They realized intuitively that their lives would change significantly. They would have to learn to communicate and constantly experience change in whatever they did - like any member of any professional team. As they needed to "hear more", they did, and acquired the associated skills needed as well.

     
     
     
    • Musawenkhosi Heinrich Shongwe
    • Assistant Registrar/ High Court, The Judiciary of Swaziland

    It is true; Listening has, in fact, become a lost Art. Some managers seem to be frightened by the practicality of 'hearing' other role players, in the running of the day-to-day organisation say something; listening to them is totally a nightmare for these managers.

     
     
     
    • KB
    • Practice Administrator, Montgomery Medical

    Well listening is part of communication which is two ways not one way. This is not only related to managers, its about all people involve in the communication and sometimes its about their cultures. How many times you have an answer as soon as you heard the main topic, suddenly your mind stopped listening and started developing your argument? Its an art to understand the nature of issues, its an art to be care and how can you create that piece of art? by listening.

     
     
     
    • Ashwin Hurribunce
    • Executive Director, IQ Business (Pty) Ltd

    An essential skill and being more than just a sense, listening attentively becomes a greater ask as you climb the social and corporate ladder. The maxim of listening more and talking less adds to this ask. Our listening is heavily influenced by our worldview. If we are open to learning and resist the temptation to tell, we are more inclined to accept multiple perspectives due mainly to a healthy listening faculty. Lastly, having collected our thoughts about what we heard, weighed them against our worldview and formulated in our mind what our response would be and provide it will put us in a more favorable position to be heard, and that too with appreciation.

     
     
     
    • Aim
    • Drilling Engineer, N/A

    Listening? You mean it is an act that had Putin used, would have resulted in a better financial decision?

    I think the right question here is, what makes people think not listening is OK? Arrogance? Fear of loosing power? Culture? And for the sake of effective global argument, lets throw in here China, Russia, CIS, Europe and Africa instead of narrowing our brainstorming to an Ivy Tower.

    Or even better, are there any situations that would require you to not listen deliberately? Who determines that? How?

     
     
     
    • Gael
    • CEO, Mylife

    Can we listen to others better that we can to ourselves? Most people do. Listening to oneself requires sometimes crude and painful honesty that most people feel they can't afford. Lying is an habit and lying to oneself is harder to get ride of because reality check has to come from within and we get to believe in our own delusions. That is why it is so important to have real friends with good memory who can be our sounding boards. They have known us for long and heard our promises to ourselves and others. They tell us things to our face in benevolent and non-threatening ways which help us to reconnect with our true self, without being judgemental about it. Listening to others works better if you can show empathy and put yourselve in the other people shoes. The more clear you are about your own thoughts the better you can listen to others. Also quality hear is more important than quantity. Expressing concerns can be done effectively if done in a certain way. That is technical. Time is short and the better people express themselve the easier it is for the listener to get it. It can be taught. Then, sincere care is the most impactful factor of trust. People dont listen well because they dont really care. They dont because they are under the water themselves. Good managers dont let themselves in such situations. Therefore they find the time and can afford to pay the required attention to their employees.

     
     
     
    • Wendy Zito
    • Principle, Wendy Zito Consulting

    I think you are correct that good listening is a lost art especially as we are all so distracted with our cell phones and our addiction to multi tasking. People seem to be more disconnected and when you feel you are being listened to then it helps you connect to the other person but it also helps you hear yourself in the process especially if the person validates what you are saying. The world needs more good listeners.

     
     
     
    • Gamaliel Pascual
    • Principal, Global Healthcare Network

    I fear that social networks may make the problem worse. The technology may be hardwiring a younger generation to create virtual tribes where the congregation is based on shared biases / values.

    When people chat or do posts, it seems, to me at least, that these are more like broadcasts rather than attempts to have thoughtful dialogues.

     
     
     
    • Wayne Brewer
    • Goizueta MBA

    There are several books that came to mind for me as I read through your list of books. The Three Laws of Performance (totally about listening to get business transformations), You're Not So Smart, You're Now Less Dumb, The Person and The Situation.

    It's interesting that what prompted your question about listening, to begin with, was your interaction with what I assume is a helpline call center where a person on the other end probably walked through a script based on answers you gave to questions, then your unusually short survey where it appeared your negative answer gave all the information they needed.

    The books I listed all have to do with behavioral psychology ...why we act the way we do. What may be happening here is that you are right ...no listening is really going on in a larger and larger number of our everyday transactions. There is a process and a script for just about everything. The acceptable answers and responses have already been anticipated and the follow-on actions and responses are prescribed, as well. Behavioral psychology posits that we are capable of logic and reason but fall short of using them ideally in common, predictable ways. What if our situations have become so mechanized from a process standpoint that, in truth, it doesn't pay for us to really pay attention as much anymore. Maybe we become happy to just bounce through the pinball machine of processes and routines because most of the time we get the reward we seek with minimal effort. We pay for this ease in the more infrequent times where our desired outcome is more complex or not accounted for by the pinball machine.

    If your question about your TV setup had fallen into a more routine problem easily solved by an easier to understand call center worker and you would have rated your experience a 9, then gone on to press a few more positive response buttons and then probably listened to a request for some other product sales pitch (the real reason for the survey ...get you saying yes before asking you to make another purchase from the company), you might have come away from the experience pleasantly surprised that the process was so easy, then submerged yourself into the movie you were trying to watch with a newly planted seed of another product you may grow to desire in the future. Some potential counterpoints: Maybe out of the other 150 calls into the center that hour, you were the only "1" and the team celebrated the lowest rate of poor ratings all day at the top of the hour, or maybe the "1" you pressed automatically forced a block on the line of your hard to understan d representative, and by the time the the extra minute and 50 seconds expired that rep was in his boss's office with both listening to the recording of your call.

    Situations we're in and the way we construe them have an enormous influence on our behaviors. Maybe companies (and individuals) are figuring out that listening to customers is not as profitable as other forms of interaction. There is at least one book that points out the counter-intuitive relationship between success and listening to customers: The Innovator's Dilemma.

     
     
     
    • Phil Clark
    • Clark & Associates

    Two major issues of modern man are making it more difficult than ever to actually listen. First, listening is a full contact sport. By that I mean to really listen you have to hear, see, comprehend and focus. That requires a great deal of energy.

    Secondly, in our fast pace world, we tend to listen for what we want to hear. A real issue for everyone. I have found the quickest way to shut down listening is to hear something you don't agree with. So the onus is on us sometimes to fight through our own walls. Just because we are the boss, CEO, parent, etc....doesn't make us always right.

    Today, we have difficulty bringing all these assets to bear. We have text messages, phones, e-mails and major language differences (even when speaking the same language) in our "modern" interactive world. All these methods place limits on listening. Text messages and emails allow no real interaction and does not allow you to see and read the other person speaking. There is no tone of voice etc. We really have to guard about using email and phone, etc for important communications.

    The author is right on the concept of questioning. You must ask questions more than tell less in conversations. I have always taught in my seminars this fact,"How you ask a question says more about you and your thoughts, than the question itself." As a leader, you cannot ask questions that places people in bad positions or makes them feel inadequate. Sorry, all the TV shows showing ill mannered or pushy bosses is doing our natioin a great disservice. There is an old saying every boss should have to remember,"Embarrassing a man in public is tantamount to taking his life." If you embarrass, belittle, or attack when asking questions...you will not get what you want and will lose any connection with that person...possibly forever.

    Listening is a tough, energy draining, and difficult task. I think that alone makes it difficult for all of us. It is plain hard work.

     
     
     
    • Marc Wong
    • Author, Speaker, Thank You for Listening

    Listening is the art and practice of putting someone else's speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. It is what you deliberately and thoughtfully do to create the best conditions for someone else to feel heard.

    Many of us don't have to make our teachers feel heard. That's why some of us don't do it well.

    By the way, dialog happens when we take turns to listen.

     
     
     
    • Yadeed Lobo

    I think perhaps a gradual movement away from embracing our perceptions of our "loud" selves (conveyed through Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter) and acceptance and cultivation of our "mindful" or "quiet" selves is the first step in the journey of becoming better listeners.

    Humility is a virtue which is either inherent or developed through difficult and trying circumstances and difficult to teach .It requires us to subsume our innermost selves to accept the opinions of others even if we disagree with them. Perhaps a start could be made in business school as part of the wider curriculum.

    A lot of latent misconceptions developed through the exchange of emails can be effectively thwarted by a singular face to face encounter where everyone has an opportunity to speak without being interrupted. However, such encounters in today's workplaces are few as most people want to be heard above the noise and end up becoming part and parcel of the noise.

    Perhaps a good example would be the recent Congressional standoff on budget ceilings. Everyone wanting to be heard but very few willing to listen to each other or themselves.

     
     
     
    • Raja
    • Freelance

    I love listening to people because I have Iearned more than I do telling. Especially when it come to deal with next generation which is of great concern to many of us;a lot of uncertainties involved,listening is the right solution. We will able to understand more about the real problem and can get the real solution more often than not.

     
     
     
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited

    God gave us two ears and two eyes but only one mouth. Why? Because he wanted us to talk less and perceive more - via our visionary and listening systems. Despite this, people are prone to talk more and listen much less. Even when they do, they only ' hear ' and avoid to listen. Listening is an art which every successful person - manager and leader in particular - needs to learn. People, however, seem impatient to vomit their views not allowing others even to speak. We find this in Board meetings also. The Chairperson speaks forcefully to ensure his word is carried. Dissent is generally not appreciated and, but for companies with good corporate governance, the other directors just remain silent and nod assent. On many occasions, this leads to damage. Even in HR management, such attitude by the leader is visible as he fails even to listen to reason.

     
     
     
    • Jack Slavinski
    • Consulting Executive

    I feel that a large part of the problem/challenge with listening is attributed to the increasing velocity of change around us. The more we are bombarded with higher degrees of input and stimulus, the greater the degree of difficulty it is for most of us to stay in the moment and focus. We must be highly vigilante of this condition and work on our personal self awareness so that we remain tuned into the conversation we are currently in.

     
     
     
    • Edward Hare
    • Retired Director...Strategy and Planning, Fortune 250 Manufacturer

    I'm not ready to label listening a lost art or a sign of what seems more fast-paced times. It has always been situational and a reflection of personal traits and values. In Professor Heskett's cable company example they showed a willingness to ask about his experience....but only if he told them what they wanted to hear. To my mind, what's on the decline is sincerity and authenticity. Communication is about an honest exchange of feelings and opinions....when it becomes about one's agenda it's pretty understandable why people tune-out and appear not to "listen". And that is not a new phenomenon.

     
     
     
    • Thoko Mkavea
    • CIBO, CDH Investment Bank

    I agree with Professor Heskett. Listening has become a lost art. Many managers don't realise the ease of learning from listening. In my direct experience, managers see feedback only as personal praise or attack, it therefore says a lot about why they will either not consider listening at all or play lip service in as far as listening is concerned, that is, collecting feedback and throwing it into a dust bin! In my view, good staff leave managers who are bad at listening, worse still, when managers take but ignore feedback. I wonder, how a team member would react to being branded "wants to be heard all the time?"

     
     
     
    • Rosa Urtubi
    • General Manager, Leadership & Transformation LET

    Thanks for listening to our comments. I'd like to add that listening is assuming the responsability, generosity to do something with whatever you hear. After all it is someones grift to you.

     
     
     
    • Peter
    • CEO, Delegate A/S

    It is very simple. You have two ears and one mouth.

     
     
     
    • Allan Torng
    • Sr. Advisor, AHS

    There are many layers between the CEO and the employees. There is a feeling amongst employees that their concerns and issues count for nought. This situation is similar to your 10 s automated call questionnaire. After the your first negative response, the survey questionnaire was terminated. It is like the cable company wasn't really interested in hearing what your feedback on that experience was after learning you had nothing positive to contribute. Society has become too focused on looking for 'positive responses'... instead of finding out how we can do things better by listening and responding to 'negative responses'.

     
     
     
    • TGale
    • HF Trainer, Jazz Aviation.

    The problem with listening is that it takes effort and presents risk. It is a distraction from forming our next comment or statement and may undermine our current opinion. To not listen is a perfectly natural and extremely simple defence mechanism. Therefore, it behoves the speaker to a) gain the trust of the listener and b) say something meaningful that is of benefit to the listener.

     
     
     
    • Shari Morwood
    • Innovation and Creativity Consultant, Ideas To Go, Inc.

    Jim, this is a very important topic. Once in a large IT company I requested every manager in my group to have a conversation with every one of their employees and ask "what would make your job better?" And then just listen. The managers pushed back saying they wouldn't necessarily be able to act on every request an employee had. While that was true, the sheer act of having the conversation improved morale (corroborated by significant improvements in the employee satisfaction survey scores). But it turned out that in some cases a situation could be changed--one employee had been moved to NY and had to live in an apartment with his wife and kids while he owned a house in Texas with a yard. Due to the nature of his current position it was possible for him to work from anywhere. After the conversation he moved back to his home and remained a productive and loyal employee. It starts at the top--if we as management don' t listen or don't know how, we can't tap the full power of the amazing talent in our own organizations. Listening is learning.

     
     
     
    • Sandra
    • Counselor, Dialogues

    Motive is the first problem. Do we really care about anything beyond "getting what I want/need"? Until we move beyond that, it's just one more "technique" to shift the problem away from me!

    Regardless of the situation,a great book for anyone is "Listening Below the Noise" by Anne D. LeClaire. Lots of reasons "why" and "how" to interact better with anyone. Be still more.

     
     
     
    • Jabbar Tooqir
    • SO, Ministry of Commerce, Pakistan

    very valid. The mangers can only communicate in a better way if they listen to their team members. The point raised in the article that the mere act of "asking" raises the level of comfort between the manager and his team is true. But building the argument on this premise that CEOs are less inclined towards listening is not totally correct. Its my personal observation that there are managers in plenty who first listen and then communicate.

     
     
     
    • Jane Gould
    • Owner, Gould Inc

    Texting falls into this category- these messages are short and so easily misinterpreted. This may add to the confusion, when a face to face conversation takes place, of "talking" and "listening" past each other.

     
     
     
    • DrAJaganMohanReddy
    • Associate Professor (HR), Institute of Public Enterprise

    Fantastic post. A good executive has to be a good listener (like a good leader must first learn to become a good follower).Leader has to take the initiative by talking less and listening more. In other words he should involve, inform and inspire and then people will perdpire.

     
     
     
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, None

    A characteristic of HBS is that it is realistic, it seems to me that it in danger of losing this realism over 'listening'. Most of the interest and activity of life depends communicating with other people. Without listening there can be no communication. Don't make things more complicated than they need be.