My husband, Ned, is a master conversationalist. He’s gregarious, articulate, well read, authentic and very funny. But, it’s not what he says that makes him special. It’s actually his listening ability that sets him apart. He has a very simple yet effective tool that he uses in conversation. He often inquisitively utters the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” It’s amazing to watch that simple phrase transform a conversation. The other person lights up. And, Ned gets the opportunity to listen and learn.
I’ve always been fascinated with people. I’m curious about what makes them tick. It’s little wonder that I started my career in market research. Focus groups, surveys, quick polls…I love it all.
Obviously, listening is a huge part of understanding people. And, I’ve always considered myself to be a good listener. So, imagine my dismay in 2009 when I went through a professional 360 survey and learned otherwise. For those not familiar, “a 360” is a type of employee evaluation where you get reviewed by your manager, employees and peers. The intent is to give a well-rounded assessment of performance, where you’re at in your career and the things you can focus on to progress.
I did my first 360 as the kick-off to the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute (BMLI). A yearlong program, BMLI is the flagship leadership development program for female executives in the cable TV industry. It’s also a life changing experience. Since its inception 20 years ago, the program has mentored over 800 executives.
For a high-strung Type A personality, your first 360 can be intense and harrowing. You can get 1,000 pieces of positive feedback, but it’s the areas for improvement that are emblazoned on your perfectionist brain. I learned that people didn’t think I listened very well which came off as arrogant. My first reaction was something like this:
“What?!?! Me? Arrogant? I’m the most down to earth person I know! Who said that? Those people are jerks. Humility is my middle name. I’ll bet it was Jeff who said that….”
Once I calmed down, I met with an executive coach who was able to put everything into perspective. The first thing she asked me about was my speaking style. She asked me how often I asked questions that started with words like “how” or “what.” The benefit to these sorts of questions is that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They require a more detailed response, and they also require the person posing the question to listen.
I started to reflect on my behavior. I realized that I frequently relied on closed-ended questions in the interest of getting things done. I’d wrap up meetings with phrases like, “Everyone good with that?” Unbeknownst to me, I was curtailing discussion and conveying that I knew all the answers. What sorts of people know all the answers? Arrogant ones.
Honing your listening skills isn’t just important for the knowledge you can gain. It directly affects people’s perception of you. Perception is everything. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my path to becoming a better listener:
- Watch the Closed-Ended Questions. Closed-ended questions are a one-way street. I know we’re all in a hurry, trying to accomplish more and more. But, be mindful of how many times in the course of a day you ask questions that can only be answered with a simple yes or no. If it’s the majority of your questions, you’re probably missing out on some good collaboration and the opportunity to let your direct reports solve problems.
- Pose “HWW” Questions. Ask questions that start with the words how, what or why. These sorts of questions encourage dialogue and provide the opportunity for you to become a better listener. Example: You might ask your team, “How might we proceed on this project?” instead of “Should we come up with a promotional plan and timeline to move this thing forward?”
- Be Patient. If you’ve been asking primarily closed-ended questions for a long time, people get used to that style. It’s very intimidating to some. So, when you start asking open-ended questions, be prepared to hear crickets. It will take people a little time to adjust to having the opportunity to talk more. The first few times you pose an “HWW” question, you may have to wait as long as 20 seconds for a response. It will seem like an eternity, but stick with it.
- Practice and Keep Track. Like any good habit, becoming a better question asker/listener takes lots of practice. When you start out, keep track of how many times in the course of the day you ask open-ended questions. And, note how people respond. I know it sounds nerdy, but when I started building this skill, I used a simple spreadsheet to keep track. I noted the question I asked in one column and how people responded in another. At the end of the day, I reflected on it. It only took a few weeks before it became a habit.
Being an effective listener is absolutely critical to being an effective leader. And, with a little self-awareness, practice and patience we can all get there.