Previously published on Forbes.com
Your job is hard. You juggle multiple priorities and projects. You manage a team of people with their own ideas about how to do things. You have to build a budget and then cut it again and again. You don’t have time or energy to waste. And losing a valued team member or key client isn’t good at all.
Given all of this, it’s important to make good choices about how to spend your time and energy in any given day. What will you attend to? Solid leadership requires discernment, focus and intentional choice. One of the most powerful skills to help you? Listening.
You must regularly take the time to listen to your team, your customers, competitors and key stakeholders in order to maintain market share, keep talent and win when you are up against disruptive technologies and fast-changing environments. How well do you listen?
Most of us would have to admit that we don’t listen all that well. Data from the International Listening Association show that we spend about 45% of our day listening. Maybe it’s not our fault, though. Listening is the one skill most of us have had the least training in — if any. We’ve had much more formal training in other major communication skills, like writing, reading and speaking. So, it’s probably not surprising that numerous tests confirm that we are inefficient listeners. In one study at the University of Missouri, researchers found that, immediately after listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, understood and retained only 50% of what was said. Within 48 hours, that drops off to 25% efficiency.
Clearly, when it comes to listening, we all have room for improvement, but the benefits of developing this skill are worth it. By becoming a better listener, you will increase your productivity and enhance your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. I’ve noticed in my years as a coach and consultant to Fortune 500 companies that people who don’t feel listened to tend to repeat themselves — over and over and over — until they get heard. This is the heart of employee or customer complaints that just won’t go away. To stop the complaint, you need to listen and let people know that you hear them. This doesn’t mean that you always agree with them, but you have to make sense of what they are saying. This can save you endless hours and much frustration.
The ROI of Listening
In our own recent research following a four-month training program for a group of managers on “generous listening,” among other skills, participants saw improvements in productivity and increased profitability resulting in $162,482 in monetary gains and a 161% ROI for the program overall.
The reason? “Generous listening,” which is defined as a focused listening to the other where your mind and heart are open and curious, is often linked to relationship-building and increased collaboration. In other words, as a result of increased listening and understanding, people trust each other more and work together more effectively. You want more of this.
What does generous listening sound like? Take a look at these examples:
Scene One: A customer’s issue
Customer: I’ve tried to contact your company for the past several weeks. I keep getting passed around from customer service agent to customer service agent. No one is listening or even interested in fixing my problem.
The Response: Of course you couldn’t find anyone to help you. We’re way too busy here and we’re understaffed. It’s not my fault.
Generous Listening You: I appreciate your perseverance in trying to get someone to help you, and I’m glad you reached me. I am here to listen and fully understand what you’ve been up against. Please explain the whole situation to me, and I will do my best to summarize what I’ve heard. Then, we’ll come up with a solution that satisfies your complaint.
Scene Two: An employee’s issue
Employee: I’m frustrated. I just don’t get enough information from my boss to understand what’s expected of me. It seems like it changes from week to week like the weather.
The Response: I feel the same way! Nobody gets enough information here. I’m always left out of the loop.
Generous Listening You: It makes sense to me that you would be frustrated. I hear you that your boss isn’t sharing enough information about what he expects of you in your job. And it seems like his expectations are changing all the time, leaving you even more confused. That has to be stressful. How can I help? What have you already tried?
Just Do This One Thing: Step One of Generous Listening
Mirroring is a process of reflecting back the content of a message from a sender. You essentially paraphrase in your own words what you’ve heard (but don’t repeat it word for word; that’s annoying). Mirroring shows the customer or employee that you are willing to rise above your own concerns for the moment and attempt to understand the other’s point of view. The key is to mirror back until the speaker really feels heard.
Whatever comes up in any conversation can be mirrored back. If the customer criticizes you or your team, mirror it back. If an employee expresses frustration, mirror it back. If the person is angry, mirror it back. If you do this, no matter what comes up, you will maintain your ability to listen and avoid an impasse.
Choosing to listen generously to another is a gift you give them. But more importantly, it saves you time and energy in the long run. If you are listening fully you won’t miss a thing. No time will be wasted with misunderstanding or repetition. This is a wise investment of your time as a leader. The bonus is that it allows people to feel heard and seen. This makes it more likely that great team members and solid clients will stay with you. Give generous listening a go!