How to become an expert listener

Stop talking, start listening. Management expert Andrew Leigh has this masterclass on how to become a great listener in business.

by Andrew Leigh
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The fastest way to stop a sales person in their tracks is to listen. Don’t move a muscle and wait. With few exceptions, most will grind to an embarrassing halt in less than one or two minutes. Salespeople need their prospects to nod, smile, and show some kind of interest. Communication crumbles when these go missing. To listen with purpose is more active and powerful than you might expect.

Anyone in a management role soon realises the importance of listening. So why are great listeners in such short supply? For example, attend the average company discussion and at least three out of four people around the table are impatiently waiting their turn to talk. No wonder recent research showed attending meetings can lower your intelligence!

Despite realising the significance of active listening, managers often confuse this with the act of hearing. These are not identical. Superb listeners do not only hear the words. They try to detect hidden meaning, clues about feelings, and signs that the overt message may conceal an entirely different one.

What will make you an expert at paying attention is staying fully present. In this state you are sharply attuned to every nuance, inflexion, and emphasis. You attend to both the words and how they are used. You search for what lies behind the sound. You also watch almost as much as you listen.

Successful organisations rely on ever more diverse sources for ideas, solutions, opportunities, and problems. 'Sometimes, I think my most important job as a CEO is to listen for bad news,' was how Bill Gates once put it. Poor listeners risk missing crucial evidence and not tapping into resources. Consequently, the sharpest executives hone their listening skills early in their career. They know and practice the essentials such as face the talker; maintain eye contact; reduce external distractions; show understanding; don’t interrupt; intensely focus on the speaker; keep an open mind; avoid saying how they reacted in a similar situation; and show interest.

Even the best managers may need to work on their personal presence to enhance their listening impact. This involves fine-tuning their alertness to what the other person says and does.  A good way to practise this is to consider these questions while listening:

'What is this person saying, beyond their basic words?'
'What is not being said—what is missing from their communication?'
'Could I sum up this person’s message to their satisfaction?'
'What is the single most important emotion I can detect?'
'How credible is this person—do I believe them?'

Another way to develop listening expertise is: When the person keeps talking about the facts, pay attention to what’s happening on the emotional front. When the person keeps talking about how they feel, pay attention to the facts and the evidence they present.

With so few good listeners around, being an expert at it can do wonders for your career. As a neat Turkish proverb puts it 'If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.'

Andrew Leigh is a founding director of UK development company Maynard Leigh Associates and the author of The Essentials of Management

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