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The Art and Value of Good Listening

3 steps to becoming a good listener

A wise old owl lived in an oak,

The more he saw the less he spoke

The less he spoke the more he heard.

Why can't we all be like that wise old bird? – unknown author

In the first few years of life, we're all taught to speak. In fact, it's an important developmental milestone, a sign that a child is developing normally. However, listening is an equally, if not more important skill that is often overlooked by parents, educators, and bosses.

Yes, we were all taught (hopefully) to listen to our parents and to listen in school. However, few of us were taught good listening—the active, disciplined kind of listening that helps us examine and challenge the information we hear in order to improve its quality and quantity, and thereby improve our decision-making.

Why is this important? According to Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, good listening is the key to developing fresh insights and ideas that fuel success. Ferrari says that although most people focus on learning how to communicate and how to present their own views more effectively, this approach is misguided and represents missed opportunities.

So what does it take to become a good listener?

In an article for McKinsey Quarterly, Ferrari writes, "The many great listeners I’ve encountered throughout my career as a surgeon, a corporate executive, and a business consultant have exhibited three kinds of behavior .... By recognizing—and practicing—them, you can begin improving your own listening skills and even those of your organization."

The three behaviors are:

1. Be respectful

The best listeners recognize that they cannot succeed without seeking out information from those around them and they let those people know that they have unique input that is valuable. When you show respect for other people's ideas, they're more likely to reciprocate. They're also more likely to continue to share their ideas, which fosters growth and increases the likelihood of success.

Being a good listener also involves drawing out important information from others to help them brainstorm and uncover fresh ideas and solutions. In other words, good listeners don't jump in with answers or give lectures about what was done wrong; they actively listen and then ask respectful questions that will ultimately help uncover solutions or plans of action.

It's also important to note that asking respectful questions does not mean that the questions can't be tough or pointed questions. The key is to ask questions in a manner that will promote as opposed to hinder the free and open flow of communication and idea-generating.

2. Talk less than you listen

Ferrari says that he has developed his own variation of the 80/20 rule, which is that his conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time, while he should speak only 20 percent of the time. He also tries to use his 20 percent of the time asking questions rather than trying to have his own say. Although he acknowledges that it's difficult to suppress your urge to speak more than listen, with practice and patience you can learn to control the urge and improve the quality and effectiveness of your dialogues by "weighing in at the right time."

Finally, Ferrari points out that interrupting with a question from time to time might be needed to move the conversation along or redirect it. However, his advise is to do so judiciously and respectfully so as to not inhibit productive sharing of information that will ultimately better inform your decisions.

3. Challenge assumptions

In his McKinsey Quarterly article, Ferrari writes, "Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation." He believes that one of the cornerstones of good listening is that in order to get what you need to know from your conversations and make good decisions, you must be willing to challenge long-held and cherished assumptions. Just because something has always been done in a certain way in the past doesn't mean there isn't an equally good or better way to do it.

Again, this change of attitude is not an easy feat to accomplish. Change is hard. There's a reason the saying, "Why fix something that isn't broken?" is so popular. In addition, doing something different adds an unknown risk to a venture.Yet, there also is risk to closing your mind to new ideas. If you always take the position that you know what's best, you will miss opportunities to discover something better.

Ferrari concedes that just like some people are better writers than others, some people naturally are going to be better listeners than others. However, by recognizing your individual strengths and weaknesses, and by incorporating these straightforward listening strategies, he believes that everyone can become better listeners, and therefore better decision-makers.

© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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