Is Active Listening the ultimate communications skill?

Over the years I have been involved in teaching communications skills to hundreds of executives. The most common issue is where senior managers are uncomfortable or unconvincing when speaking in public. For a small number of executives, this is phobia territory. The comedian Jerry Sienfeld remarked: “At a funeral, most people would prefer to be in the box, than to give the eulogy”.

Presentation Skills: The good news is that presentation skills can be learned. Like touch-typing or windsurfing, it takes a bit of practice, but once you understand the basic rules you get the hang of it. While not everyone will morph into a great public speaker (some of it is driven by personality type), almost everyone can become a solid performer. Let’s tick that box and move on.

To Write or not to Write: The second communication skill is writing. Many executives dislike writing and some actively avoid it. They might be OK on emails and shorter stuff – but have a real distaste for writing reports or constructing strategy documents where arguments have to be marshaled in a particular way. In terms of curability, writing skills can also be honed. While we may not be able to convert CEO emails into thrillers, it’s usually possible to spot the bigger writing mistakes and eradicate these. For sure, some practice is needed, but good writing is also a learned craft. Interestingly, the ‘market’ for helping executives improve their writing skills is quite small. It’s as if acknowledging a writing deficit is somehow a greater sin than being a poor presenter. So, even executives who know they don’t write well (and not everyone is self-aware) find it hard to ask for help with this. Can you see that we’re on a roll here? The good news with both presentation and writing skills is that they can be fixed – provided that the will exists to put in the sweat equity. And this leads us neatly to the single BIGGEST executive skills deficit – poor listening.

Active Listening: I’ve written elsewhere (Accidental Leadership: The Liffey Press, 2009) that there is an inverse relationship between organization level and listening skills. The general rule is as follows: As you become more senior, you listen less. You hog the conversation. You interrupt when others are speaking. People listen to you, not because what you say is insightful or funny. They listen to you because of your stripes. It’s a tribal thing. You are more senior in the tribe (an ‘elder’) and are given the respect for this.

Poor Listening De-rails Careers: I worked with a well-respected executive, who held the CEO role in an Irish subsidiary. He’d sought coaching on ‘cultural sensitivity’ – because he did not seem to be able to curry influence within the USA parent company. Very effective in Ireland, he felt that he was ‘missing’ some key information when he travelled to the US and met with his counterparts. After meeting him a couple of times, the ‘problem’ was re-diagnosed as follows. He was a terrible listener. This did not hold him back in Ireland – because his subordinates tolerated this. He’d simply have to lean forward in a meeting or lose eye contact and people would respond – watching and interpreting his body language. Yet, his poor listening skills almost upended his career when he had to interact with his peer CEO’s (country managers) when they all met at HQ. This group were much less tolerant of his ‘interruptions’ and failure to understand their perspective of the world. It was not a cultural sensitivity issue – it was a bad case of poor listening.

Listening is not Waiting: Some senior executives don’t listen at all. They simply wait – until the other person finishes what they are saying – and then they continue to speak. People sometimes have two separate conversations – what the Jesuit writer, John Powell SJ, labeled as a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. The key downside is that when you are talking you are not understanding and seldom learning. Poor listening cuts off a huge amount of data within your organization, about the external competition etc. Of course there are times to be forceful, to ague vehemently, to confidently defend a position. But, there are a far greater number of times to listen, to show empathy, to discover, to allow contradictory ideas make you uncomfortable. We all know the line ‘God gave you 2 ears and 1 mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak’. Do you?

In Denial: For many executives, admitting to being a poor listener is akin to saying that you are tight with money, are a poor judge of character or are completely useless in the sack. In my experience, executives tend to overestimate their ability in this area. And, if you are an extrovert, your listening skills are usually worse again. Your default style is to be centre stage as extroverts use talking as a way of thinking (“How do I know what I believe, I haven’t said it yet”). I should know. I have to continually fight a poor listening style and keep this under control (sometimes, it even works!).

Protecting Yourself: Poor listening can be a form of self-protection. We are bombarded with information, which challenges our worldview. Customer defections, declining markets, game-changing technology and smart competitor moves assault our security. When we hear that an idea or project we are personally invested in has gone south, our instinct is to blank it out. We hear the noise, but ‘filter’ the bad news.

But, the really good news is that poor listening can be fixed. There are a myriad of training techniques (many developed in the area of counseling and psychotherapy) that can lift your listening game. Active listening is actually a number of distinct ‘mini-skills’, which you can learn, practice and get better at.  How good are you in the listening space and how much do you want to improve this? Listening is the ultimate communications skill for executives and is vastly undervalued.

Are you listening?

Paul Mooney


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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