Maverick Thinking

Are you listening carefully?

08 April 2021 5 min read
Adam Tuckwell image
Written by

Adam Tuckwell

The next 12-24 months will be critical for most businesses. With the expected end of the Government’s furlough programme and an easing of support packages, the short- to mid-term future will make or break many businesses. In this article, Mobas’ Commercial Director Adam Tuckwell explains why there’s never been a better or more pressing time for business leaders to invest in their listening skills.

Every month at Mobas, we come together as a team to explore a theme through an engaging and interactive workshop. These sessions allow us to work with others from across the business, often those we don’t work with on a day-to-day basis, and are designed to challenge the way we think, act and behave. In the most recent session, held virtually due to the pandemic, we explored the topic of Active Listening.

As business leaders, we’re often rather self-assured in our own abilities. If challenged on our ability to listen effectively we would probably consider ourselves to be good listeners. But if we asked our customers, colleagues, friends and family members to rate our listening ability, how well would we fare? Their feedback might surprise you because typically most people believe they're much better listeners than they truly are.

Active listening involves making a conscious effort to hear words as well as to try and understand the total message being communicated, both verbally and non-verbally. Active listening requires you to listen not only with your ears, but also with your eyes. Through sight, we can observe body language gestures and look for alignment with their words, posture, movement and tone of voice.

Leaders typically have a blind spot when it comes to how effective they are as listeners. Academic studies show that most people believe they have above-average listening skills, however, the average person listens with only about 25% efficiency. Listening is a greatly misunderstood skill, and one which probably has the greatest potential for growth as we look to return to offices and kick-start our businesses as the pandemic effects ease.

Peter Drucker, the highly successful management consultant and author, is widely quoted as saying that ‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said’. It’s easy for us to blame our poor listening on the recent lockdowns, when access to our team has been restricted by working from home but, in many cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While open-plan offices have become the norm and ‘open-door’ policies widely promoted, leaders are often found in corner offices. Their time is scheduled by their executive PA, emails are screened, reports sanitised and summarised. Contact with the wider team is minimised, and often occurs when a leader’s focus is elsewhere. All of this creates barriers to our listening skills and impacts what we know about our teams, customers and stakeholders. It sanitises what we hear, and subconsciously impacts our assessment of our business and the worlds we operate in.

So how can this be overcome and, as we return to our workplaces, how can we become better active listeners? Writing in Forbes, Dianne Schilling lists ten practical ways in which we can become better and more active listeners.

  1. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact
  2. Be attentive, but relaxed
  3. Keep an open mind
  4. Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying
  5. Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your ‘solutions’
  6. Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions
  7. Ask questions only to ensure understanding
  8. Try to feel what the speaker is feeling
  9. Give the speaker regular feedback
  10. Pay attention to what isn’t said – to non-verbal cues

This list is fairly typical: there won’t be anything in the list that comes as a surprise, but the key to active listening really lies in being present when engaging with others. The term ‘Zoom fatigue’ has entered our lexicon in 2020/21. We have all, I’m sure, grown tired of hours spent on video conferences, and while we sit on virtual meetings the temptation to multi-task and split our attention is strong. So, in addition to the list of practical tips above, in a virtual context listening needs to be active, participatory and helpful. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Sarah Gresham offers five strategies to listen more effectively in virtual meetings. We’ve summarised these below and customised them so they’re as relevant as they can be for business leaders.

1. Define your value beforehand.

Sarah’s first point is the most valuable. The biggest cause of distraction is often boredom. We need to distil the purpose of the meeting and what your value could be before the meeting even starts. Ask yourself, do you need to be there? Will this be an effective use of my time, what can I contribute, what can I learn and, critically, will a formal meeting be the best way to tackle this challenge or issue? Sarah writes that figuring out beforehand what you need from the call or meeting will help you listen more carefully to what’s being said and strengthen a listening muscle for future meetings.

2. Acknowledge previous statements.

Participants sometimes jump in to make their point without first listening to or acknowledging what’s just been said – this is particularly true for more experienced leaders who may have faced similar challenges or issues in the past, and who are quick to jump to a solution. In practice, all this does is slow down the meeting and leads to a disjointed and frustrating conversation. Sarah writes that this dynamic is magnified in a virtual meeting, where people often talk over each other. Active listening can help. Before you raise a new topic, reiterate what you just heard or the previous point you plan to riff on — even ask the speaker whether you’ve characterised their point correctly. Not only does this help the conversation, but it makes it more likely that others will hear what you have to say. People are more likely to listen if they first feel heard.

3. Connect the dots.

We all know that leading virtual meetings can be difficult. Participants often provide scattershot commentary, and it’s tough for a leader to keep the conversation running smoothly. Again, your ability to listen will help but, as leaders, we’re often uniquely placed to offer a broader perspective: we need to bring this to any meeting and offer our skills and expertise to connect themes, trends, opinions and insights together and translate them into actionable tasks.

4. Bring your attention back.

Everyone gets distracted: it’s only natural for your mind to wander during the call, especially if we’re operating from our home or remote offices. To mitigate for this, Sarah encourages leaders to be prepared with physical tactics. Have a pen and paper to hand, write notes, bullet-point key actions, tasks or themes to be explored later. The physical task of writing can help us engage all our senses, pick up on nuances and really take on board what’s being discussed.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask a question.

We’ve all lost our attention and missed information in virtual calls. If this occurs, Sarah advocates honesty over improvisation. Give yourself a few minutes to get back on track, and don’t be afraid to ask a clarifying question. She concludes ‘Thoughtful, active listening raises your status in the conversation and makes it more likely that others will want to sit up and listen to you. Perhaps most importantly, active, thoughtful listening is a precious gift to your colleagues. It provides meaningful connection during a time and place when people need it most’.

You can read the full article, Stop Zoning Out In Zoom Meetings, in Harvard Business Review.

In our monthly session at Mobas, we ran active listening exercises where we talked about holidays, passions and experiences. The challenge allowed us to put into practice the tactics of active listening and explore the tools or methodologies that work most effectively for each of us as individuals to aid our listening skills. By testing our skills, we’re able to identify where we need to improve, and the response to the session has been hugely positive and encouraged each of us to be more mindful of how we listen and engage with those around us.

Why is it so important for us to master active listening skills? The answer is simple. As humans, we bond when we feel we’re being listened to. When we become better listeners, trust between you and your team, clients, customers and stakeholders will grow. Active listening also increases our ability to anchor and remember details and ideas, and at this critical stage, as we emerge from lockdown, it really could be a simple skill that defines whether businesses blossom or not.