New Research About What Great Listeners Do

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If you’ve been coached in the rules of good listening, you may have learned that it is best to stay quiet and not interrupt. Maybe you also learned to repeat back to the other person what you have heard them say. New research, however, suggests that the most effective listeners are those who are involved in a two-way conversation.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed data from a development program designed to help managers become better coaches, and identified the leaders who were considered the best listeners. Then they sifted through their listening behaviors, and those of others in the program, to identify the difference between great and average listeners.

According to Zenger and Folkman, “the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification.”

Some of the behaviors of effective listeners included:

  • Asking good questions that showed they’d been listening
  • Conveying support and encouragement, rather than passive reception, or criticism
  • Making suggestions

The last behavior was surprising to the researchers—and to me, actually—because a common complaint about bad listeners is that they try to jump in and solve the problem rather than listening. The authors interpreted the data this way:

“Perhaps what the data is telling us is that making suggestions is not itself the problem; it may be the skill with which those suggestions are made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. (Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.)”

Read more about the research in “What Great Listeners Actually Do,” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review, July 14, 2016.

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