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Lessons in listening: A new superpower?

Graham Drew

May 26, 2022

How developing your listening skills to the next level could give you a new commercial superpower.

Okay. I do realise it’s extremely unlikely that the Marvel franchise will be releasing “Listening Woman” or “Listening Man” as their next box office hit any time soon…but maybe they should be thinking about it!

Listening as a skill tends to be woefully underestimated in business. It often gets put in the ‘soft skills’ box and then left there throughout our careers. But developing seriously proficient listening skills, and keeping them regularly honed, can give you a significant commercial advantage. It really could be that new superpower you’ve been looking for.

Critical for commercial success

An article in Forbes by Matt Toledo outlined the numerous benefits of superior listening, including boosted confidence, increased productivity, stronger credibility and relationship building. Toledo argues that listening skills are as critical as any for organisational success. They allow you to increase your understanding of what is important to others, they provide you with information that has high value to you, and they contribute to the building of long-term, trusted commercial relationships.

In today’s world of digital communications, and hybrid home/office working, it is arguably more important than ever. We absolutely need to make the most of every person-to-person interaction we have.

Room for improvement

We all know the adage “You’re never too old to learn”, and with innate skills like listening, it couldn’t be more apt. The trouble with something we’ve been fortunate enough to be doing our whole lives, is that we think we know how to do it, and we tend to overestimate how good we are at it.

Zenger and Folkman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, summarised this challenge as follows. They identified that most people believe that to be a good listener, you need to do follow three key rules. Firstly, don’t talk over others; secondly, show you are listening by responding with encouraging facial and verbal cues; and thirdly, regularly repeat back what someone has said to show your understanding.

However, their research into ‘What great listeners actually do’ found there is rather more to it. While the above three behaviours can contribute to a positive social interaction, more critical to the success of being recognised as an outstanding listener were:

· Pertinent questioning that gently challenged old assumptions

· Interactions that showed empathy and understanding, and built trust

· Discussions that promoted co-operation and collaboration

· Insightful suggestions that opened up alternative paths

Zenger and Folkman summed up their findings with a simple analogy. Truly effective listeners are less ‘sponges’ and more ‘trampolines’. Rather than simply absorbing what the other person is saying, good listeners are people who can ‘amplify, energise and clarify’ their counterpart’s thinking.

It makes great sense, but these techniques are complex and can’t be gained overnight. Developing this nuanced set of skills requires focus and practise. I would argue it needs dedicated time spent away from the day job to re-examine one’s approach to listening, to consider the effect of great listeners on ourselves, and to begin to adapt to new approaches and behaviours.

It is however a great opportunity to arm ourselves with a new highly effective way to help us succeed with our commercial interactions. I reckon it’s the closest to a superhero I’m ever likely to get!

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