You're probably an average listener—at best. Here's how to be a better one.

'Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog'

Most people think that good listeners are those who listen in silence and can repeat back what they've heard—but those traits aren't actually enough, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write for Harvard Business Review.

To discover what makes a great listener, Zenger and Folkman, who are executives at a leadership development consultancy, analyzed data on about 3,500 managers whose coaching skills had been assessed by peers during a development program.

Zenger and Folkman identified those rated as the most effective listeners and compared them to their peers who were rated merely "average."

What set the best listeners apart

Those perceived as the best listeners, Zenger and Folkman found, were those who didn't just listen; they also spoke up periodically to ask questions. Their engagement showed that they had heard what was said, comprehended it, and wanted additional information.

"Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way 'speaker versus hearer' interaction," Zenger and Folkman write.

The best listeners also created a positive environment for the person talking and "made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them." 

The best listeners sometimes challenged the speaker's assumptions, but they did so as part of a "cooperative conversation," in which "feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made," Zenger and Folkman write. The best listeners made the other person feel as if they were "trying to help, not wanting to win an argument."

"By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive—as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response," Zenger and Folkman write.

Suggestions

To become a top-level listener, Zenger and Folkman suggest:

  • Focusing your attention on the person speaking, clearing away phones and other distractions;
  • Observing nonverbal cues, such as facial expression, posture, and other body language signals;
  • Asking clarifying questions and give input without taking over the discussion; and
  • Keeping the conversation open and comforting (Zenger/Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 7/14). 

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