Developing Proactive Listening Skills
Peter Drucker, the father of modern management theory, identifies “the willingness, ability, and self-discipline to listen” as one of the essential competencies of a great leader. In the same paragraph, however, he asserts that, “Anybody can do it. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.” (1)
We agree with Drucker’s first assertion, but we take issue with the second. In our experience, to excel in listening requires much more than just keeping one’s mouth shut. It also helps to really be motivated to understand what the other person or group is trying to get across.
If you want your organization to excel, it must become great at proactive listening. Proactive listening is critically important for great customer relations. It is also essential to develop “co-intelligence” in the decision-making of your organization. Two of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People underscore these points. Habit #1: “Be Proactive.” Habit #5: “Seek First to Understand . . . Then to be Understood.” (2)
So what knowledge, skills, and attitude does it take to be a great proactive listener? Kela Associates provides experiential learning in our workshops and seminars in “Proactive Listening” and “Fostering Co-Intelligence” to help your organization excel at:
- Listening for Meaning and Intent: trying to understand deeply what the other person means, what she/he is trying to accomplish and why (as well as literally what he/she says). In the Hawaiian language the same word — “ho’olohe” — means both to “listen” and “hear.”
- Listening for Emotion: paying attention to the speaker’s tone of voice, emotion-filled word choices, volume, speed, and other verbal “signals” or “cues” of fear, excitement, anger, avoidance, denial, frustration, joy, sorrow, confusion, disturbance, and the intensity or energy associated with these feelings. (“You have to listen to the song beneath the words.”) (3)
- Listening for Context and Subtext: great listening goes beyond hearing the text to understanding the context and subtext of what is said and meant.
- Listening with Your Eyes: paying attention to the visual cues, the speaker’s body language, his/her eye movements, the speaker’s posture, and with whom and to what extent the speaker is making eye contact.
- Allowing Silence and Processing Time: in the hurry to complete conversations, we often ignore the need for silence and time to process what we are hearing from others. One key to successful proactive listening is acknowledging the need for periodic silence and time to process and consider important ideas of others.
- Stilling Your Brain & Judgments: in order to listen effectively to others, one can’t be composing the next question, response, rebuttal, or judgment as others speak. It takes stilling your own mind and putting your thoughts, judgments, and reactions on hold until you can hear out the others’ messages and discern their points of view. (“Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.”) (4)
- Listening for Co-Intelligence: this involves a number of elements; at the very least, it includes listening not from a “right-wrong” perspective, but instead from a point-of-view perspective. The mindset is to affirmatively seeking the wisdom, the added facts or nuances, the different language, and/or the complementary or alternative insights, viewpoints, or solutions that others bring. (“[I]n ho’oponpono [a Hawaiian family and group therapy system also used in resolving organizational disputes], everyone has the chance to talk while the others listen.”) (5)
- Asking Clarifying Questions: instead of argumentative ones. (A great listener “spends more time asking appropriate questions rather than giving answers or opinions.”) (6) Also asking appropriate clarifying questions at an appropriate point in the conversation or meeting conveys to the speaker your genuine desire to understand. That is an important part of communicating effectively. Possible clarifying questions you might want to consider asking might include: “Could you give me an example of that to help me better understand?” “What was your response to . . . ?” “Why do you think. . .?” (7)
- Checking for Understanding: summarizing the key points of what you have heard in your own words and checking with the speaker to see if your understanding is accurate and complete from the pint of view of the person speaking to you.
- Listening with Self-Awareness: this entails being conscious of your own mental filters, perceptions, thoughts, reactions, and feelings, as you listen, without being distracted or losing connection with the speaker. Obviously, this is one that takes some practice! (“Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one’s own inner voice, and seeking to understand what one’s body, spirit, and mind are communicating.”) (8)
As Krishnamurti has written, “When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely — the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears — when you give your whole attention to it.”
Notes on Proactive Listening:
1. Drucker, Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Principles and Practices.
2. Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.
3. Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.
4. Theole, http://en.thinkexist.com/quotations/listening/3.html.
5. Shook, Ho’oponopono.
6. Koslow, 365 Ways to Become a Millionaire (Without Being Born One).
7. Kouzes and Posner, A Coach’s Guide to Developing Exemplary Leaders.
8. Spears, Robert Greenleaf, The Power of Servant Leadership.