The executive’s guide to better listening

29 Feb 2012 Sandeep Mehta

A quick post about an interesting article in the McKinsey Quarterly: The executive’s guide to better listening:

“Listening is the front end of decision making. It’s the surest, most efficient route to informing the judgments we need to make, yet many of us have heard, at one point or other in our careers, that we could be better listeners. Indeed, many executives take listening skills for granted and focus instead on learning how to articulate and present their own views more effectively.”

The article provides three very useful suggestions:

1. Show Respect: We need to trust our colleagues, give them a chance explain their perspective, and more importantly, give them some time to work their way to a solution instead of just providing one to them. May be encourage them to experiment a bit more.

Our conversation partners often have the know-how to develop good solutions, and part of being a good listener is simply helping them to draw out critical information and put it in a new light. To harness the power of those ideas, senior executives must fight the urge to “help” more junior colleagues by providing immediate solutions. Leaders should also respect a colleague’s potential to provide insights in areas far afield from his or her job description.

2. Keep Quiet: Something very hard to do for me, but the rule is to only speak for 20% of the time and keep quite for 80%.

Many executives struggle as listeners because they never think to relax their assumptions and open themselves to the possibilities that can be drawn from conversations with others. … But many executives will have to undergo a deeper mind-set shift—toward an embrace of ambiguity and a quest to uncover “what we both need to get from this interaction so that we can come out smarter.”
… Too many good executives, even exceptional ones who are highly respectful of their colleagues, inadvertently act as if they know it all, or at least what’s most important, and subsequently remain closed to anything that undermines their beliefs.

3.Question Assumptions: It is important to question assumptions (both our own and those of our colleagues to have a meaningful conversation:

So it takes real effort for executives to become better listeners by forcing themselves to lay bare their assumptions for scrutiny and to shake up their thinking with an eye to reevaluating what they know, don’t know, and—an important point—can’t know.

Here is a useful technique to question assumptions:

Duncan uses a technique I find helpful in certain situations: he will deliberately alter a single fact or assumption to see how that changes his team’s approach to a problem. This technique can help senior executives of all stripes step back and refresh their thinking. In a planning session, for example, you might ask, “We’re assuming a 10 percent attrition rate in our customer base. What if that rate was 20 percent? How would our strategy change?

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