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Has Listening Become a Lost Art?

Managers may have ears, but do they use them? Jim Heskett's readers offer opinions on why listening might be a lost art.

Published: Mar 10, 2014 06:52:04 AM IST
Updated: Jan 5, 2024 10:33:57 AM IST

When Is Listening Not a Good Strategy?
Like a good case debate, the discussion of the question of whether listening is a lost art was not one-sided. What was clear was how important people felt listening is to effective leadership.

As Shari Morwood put it, "It starts at the top-if we as management don't listen or don't know how, we can't tap the full power of the amazing talent in our own organizations. Listening is learning." Rosa Urtubi added that "listening is assuming the responsibility, generosity to do something with whatever you hear. After all it is someone's gift to you." Wendy Zito believes that "when you feel you are being listened to then it helps you connect to the other person but it also helps you hear yourself."

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Gael raised the question to a more universal level with her comment: "Listening to oneself requires sometimes crude and painful honesty that most people feel they can't afford." That is why, she continued, it is so important to have real friends with good memory who can be our sounding boards. "Listening to others works better if you can show empathy and put yourself in the other peoples' shoes."

Several argued that the skill of listening is on the wane. "I fear that social networks may make the problem worse," commented Gamaliel Pascual. "The technology may be hardwiring a younger generation to create virtual tribes where the congregation is based on shared biases/values." Allan Torng said, "Society has become too focused on looking for 'positive responses' … instead of finding out how we can do things better by listening and responding to 'negative responses.'"

Others were not so sure. Tema Frank said she is not convinced that our ability to listen is any worse than it has been in the past. "The problem is that most people are terrible listeners, and we are all so time pressed that we are reluctant to take the time that is required to really listen to others." Dennis Nelson added: "The art of communication, which includes listening, has always been a problem. What is different is that the impact of miscommunications becomes more apparent more quickly in today's knowledge and highly interactive society…."

KB raised an interesting point with this question: "How many times (do) you have an answer as soon as you heard the main topic, suddenly your mind stopped listening and started developing your argument?" A discussion leadership strategy at Harvard Business School is based on this assumption: It is that a discussion leader should avoid calling on students whose hands have been in the air for several minutes. The assumption, which is nearly always borne out, is that they will bring the discussion back to where it was when they raised their hand, the point at which they stopped listening to what was being said by other students.

Others posed counter-questions that are important to consider as well. For example, Aim suggested, "I think the right question here is, what makes people think not listening is OK? … Or even better, are there any situations that would require you to not listen deliberately?" Wayne Brewer provided one response to that one when he said, "Maybe companies (and individuals) are figuring out that listening to customers is not as profitable as other forms of interaction. There is at least one book that points out the counter-intuitive relationship between success and listening to customers: The Innovator's Dilemma.

Whether or not that is an accurate representation of Clay Christensen's book, it raises another interesting question: When is listening not a good strategy? What do you think?

The week that I write this, I needed help programming a television set for recording purposes. Before being connected with the cable company service representative, I agreed to provide telephonic feedback about the service after my call. The call went miserably, in large part because I couldn't understand what the rep was saying. After 30 minutes, it was clear that my time was running out, and I was shunted off the call quickly with little assurance that I had programmed my television set correctly.

Several minutes later, the automated call came for the questionnaire. A recorded voice thanked me for cooperating and assured me that the poll would take only two minutes. The first question was, "On a scale of 1 (low) and 5 (high) how would you rate your overall experience?" I pressed the "1" on my phone. Whereupon the automated voice thanked me for my cooperation and hung up, consuming only about ten seconds of the two minutes.

Having studied and written about the value of "listening posts" in business, I concluded that the company's management wasn't interested in listening.

In his new book Quick and Nimble, based on more than 200 interviews, Adam Bryant concludes, that, among other things, managers need to have more "adult conversations" —conversations needed to work through "inevitable disagreements and misunderstandings" —with our direct reports. Such conversations require careful listening.

In the same book he reports that CEOs expressed major concerns about the misuse and overuse of e-mail, something that they feel encourages disputes to escalate more rapidly than if face-to-face conversations had taken place instead. The latter, however, would require people to listen.

Edgar Schein, known primarily for his work on corporate culture, pursues the subject from a different direction in a little book, Humble Inquiry. In it, he asks and answers a question we discussed here several months ago of why CEOs talk too much and listen too little. And he proposes an antidote, something he calls "the gentle art of asking instead of telling," describing the kinds of questions designed to elicit useful information. At the same time, according to Schein, the mere act of asking, if done sincerely, requires that the questioner make himself temporarily vulnerable to the person being questioned. This in turn, builds trust so lacking in many organizations today.

There's a catch, however. It requires that the questioner know how to listen, something many CEOs have forgotten.

The question is brought closer to home in a new book by Daniel DeSteno, The Truth About Trust. DeSteno presents evidence from the world of psychology that we don't even listen to ourselves. As a result, we shouldn't trust anything that we say or plan. He cites studies that conclude that people deceive themselves into thinking they will do things in the future that, when the time comes, they have no intention of doing. Further, we often deny that we ever expressed the intention in the first place.

Am I imagining that this is a growing problem, or have I just been picking up the wrong books lately? Has it always been like this? Are we forgetting how to listen? If so, what are the reasons? What do you think?

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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  • Anurag Gupta

    One of the reasons of decline of listening skills has been the decline of speaking skills. The amount of time is finite during any discussion, but many speakers rarely talk to the point, and fluff their sentences with meaningless hyperboles, and show scant respect for the listeners\' time. Crisp, clear, and direct communication is the need of hour. Listening cannot exist in vacuum, it has to co-exist with equivalent and effective Speaking.

    on Mar 11, 2014