How ACTIVE IS Your ACTIVE Listening?

I felt inadequate. Like, really inadequate.

Jack was one of my first executive coaching clients, many moons ago. In one of our initial sessions, Jack kept describing a specific dilemma he was facing. The situation that troubled Jack was “way out of my league.” Jack was speaking about nuances and contingencies I did not understand. A little voice in my head kept whispering say something, say something. I chimed in a few times, asked a couple of questions.

When the hour came to an end, I felt utterly deflated. I had been so useless. I had added no value to this conversation.

You were so helpful, Jack said to me as we shook hands and left the room.

Go figure.

Somehow, I had gotten the most basic piece of active listening right. I had shut up and allowed Jack to talk.

I got lucky. Because mature active listening involves a heck of a lot more than my lucky accident.

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening. Most people never listen.” - Ernest Hemingway

In my experience, most of us think active listening means:

  • We don’t talk when others are speaking.
  • We let them know we’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”). These are often called attending behaviors.
  • We repeat what they have said. At its finest, we call this validating or paraphrasing.

These are the skills you learn in a corporate communication skills class. As I was flipping through a back issue of Harvard Business Review, I was reminded that these behaviors fall far short of Active Listening at its finest (“What Great Listeners Actually Do,” HBR, Zenger & Folkman, July/August 2016).

Basic active listening behaviors are not ACTIVE enough.

In their research, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, the managers’ coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. Zenger and Folkman identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). They then compared the best listeners to the average of all other managers in the data set.

The authors arrived at some unexpected conclusions. They organized these conclusions into four main areas. These areas transcend traditional active listening wisdom. They transcend listening to all that isn’t said. They suggest an explicitly ACTIVE engagement in a conversation. Quite ACTIVE.

Good listening is more than shutting up.

People perceive those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight to be the best listeners. These questions may, in fact, respectfully challenge old assumptions, but they do so in a constructive way. Sitting in silence and nodding our head does not provide any evidence that we are listening. Asking a good question tells the other person not only that we heard what they said, but that we comprehend it well enough to desire additional information.

Good listening is consistently viewed as a two-way dialogue rather than a one-way speaker-versus-listener transaction. The best conversations are ACTIVE. Highly ACTIVE.

Good listening builds a person’s self-esteem.

The best listeners make the conversation a positive experience for the other party. This doesn’t happen when the listener is passive or overly critical. A good listener, in fact, makes the other person feel supported and conveys confidence in the person. The speaker feels heard, and more importantly, understood.

Good listening is characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences can be discussed. There is NO experience of good listening without psychological safety.

Good listening generates a cooperative conversation. 

In cooperative interactions, feedback flows smoothly in both directions, with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other makes. In contrast, poor listeners are often seen as competitive – as if they are listening only to identify errors in reasoning and using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. While this may make us an excellent debater, it doesn’t make us a good listener.

Good listeners may actually challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels like the listener is trying to help, not trying to win or be right.

Good listeners tend to make suggestions.

Good listening invariably includes some feedback. This feedback is provided in a way that others will accept. It opens up alternative paths of moving forward.

This finding surprised Zenger and Folkman since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that so-and-so didn’t listen, they just jumped in and tried to fix me.

The data suggests that, perhaps, making a suggestion is not the problem; it may be the skill with which that suggestion is made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.

This ACTIVE LISTENING playbook is a lot more ACTIVE than most of us thought, isn’t it?

Shut up, focus on the speaker and don’t interrupt are, indeed, great active listening starting points. They don’t suffice. Paraphrasing doesn’t suffice, either. Get more ACTIVELY engaged in your conversations. Have the courage to make your conversation a truly cooperative experience.

One in which you listen, of course.


Related: Leadership That Lends a Hand: Why Hands-Off Isn't Effective