This question has been on my mind a lot recently. As you know, listening is my thing. I love to listen to others. And recently I have been asking myself, more deeply, “What is the impact of listening?”
In my experience, listening to others has enabled them to generate their best thinking. To release their creativity, build their self-confidence, restore their courage.
And listening to others enables me too. It helps me open my own mind further. Develop my own knowledge and experience. Discover opportunities for collaboration.
During these unusual times, are we overlooking the impact of listening to each other? Some of us are spending more time alone, others of us are living and working in close proximity to family members, and many of us are connecting with our colleagues only virtually. Are we acknowledging the crucial contribution that high-quality listening can make in our lives right now? Are we listening with awareness and intention?
As a leader, a coach, a parent, or a mentor, why should you listen more? Below I share five key impacts that great listeners have on those around them.
1. Generating the best thinking and ideas in others
When we listen with interest, free from interruption and judgement, we create a safe space for others to think well – really well – for themselves. We do this by asking questions that keep the speaker thinking well.
The best questions I have found are those that the speaker does not know the answer to (and nor do I!). They are simple, specific, and sincere. Not a barrage of questions that feel like an interrogation. Rather a question, only when the speaker requires one, to nudge their thinking further. For example:
- What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?
- What do you want to accomplish?
- What are you assuming that stops you?
- If you knew you could, how would you?
One of my coaching clients, let’s call him Tom, was faced with a challenge. His biggest client requested that they pitch again for the business. The client was not unhappy with their work, rather they felt it appropriate to experience how others might support their needs. This was a big deal. The contract was worth £1 million. During our coaching conversation, Tom experienced the level of listening I describe above. He considered how he might shift his own approach in the pitch. Tom left our meeting having decided to rewrite the plan. Rather than flooding the client with more information on how they would be the best and offer the highest quality, he would embark on asking them a few questions. And then listen. And listen some more. Tom and his team had the pitch meeting that very week. The following week, Tom dropped me an email. They won the pitch. The client knew they had made the right decision. And Tom knew it was because of his listening.
2. Building self-esteem and self-confidence
Listening to encourage another means staying interested in what they are saying and where they go next with their thinking. It offers far more than listening to reply, analyze or solve. Listening with interest is different from listening with curiosity.
Think about it for a moment. When we listen with interest, we are listening for the speaker to connect more with their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. When we listen with curiosity, we are listening to fuel ourselves. Each approach creates subtle yet powerfully different experiences for the speaker.
When we listen with interest, we observe, notice, and feel their strengths, qualities, and values. We appreciate out loud what we observe, which serves to encourage and build self-esteem in them.
3. Connecting and collaborating
When we listen to understand more deeply what others want to accomplish for themselves, we create opportunities for collaboration rather than competition. When we listen free from judgement and hierarchy, we are at ease ourselves. We have a willingness to be free from taking a position of right or wrong. We mitigate both the internal and external competition the speaker might be experiencing. We help them challenge assumptions that may be holding them back. We help them open up paths for collaboration.
4. Creating opportunities for behavioural change
Research, undertaken by Itzchakov and Kluger has revealed that high-quality listening and asking questions to deepen self-awareness can positively shape team members’ emotions and attitudes towards change. Drawing upon Carl Rogers’ theory that listening can be an avenue for self-change, they report that when speakers experience empathetic, attentive, and non-judgemental listening, they relax and share their inner feelings and thoughts, free from reprisal. In turn, this allows them to connect more deeply with their consciousness and discover new insights about themselves – even their most deep-seated beliefs and perceptions.
And then she listened. Listened with encouragement and appreciation for who they were.
Another of my clients, let’s call her Sam, was given the leadership of a new global team. Her first employee engagement survey revealed low levels of engagement – a disjointed and fractured team. During our coaching conversations, we focused on how Sam could develop her team members so they could perform at their best, feel valued, and, in turn, add value. As an experienced practitioner in her field, Sam could see some of the shortcomings of her team. During our coaching, she discovered ways to engage her team differently. Sam discovered the impact of thinking for herself. She revealed, for herself, powerful insights. She connected with her own resourcefulness. With these new findings, she began to adopt the same approach with her team members. Rather than suggesting what they could do differently to improve their performance, and in some cases change their behaviour, she began to ask them more questions. Questions that helped them think about the impact of their behaviour, what changes they would like to see, how they might manifest that change for themselves. And then she listened. Listened with encouragement and appreciation for who they were. With this coach-approach to her leadership, not only did Sam’s team improve performance, her employee engagement score rose to 100%.
5. Sharing insights and experiences
Giving advice can, at best, hinder breakthrough ideas. It can limit someone’s thoughts and disrupt their commitment to their own thinking. At worst it can be experienced as infantilising. However, at the request of the speaker, great listeners can offer information from their experience, observation, and insight, free from attachment and in service of the speaker, to keep them thinking well for themselves.
Why should you listen? Itzchakov and Kluger’s research builds on their earlier findings that feedback – both positive and negative – can cause performance to decline by 38%. However, listening can make feedback more productive by giving employees psychological safety. Being listened to allows us to drop our barriers of defensiveness. And, as my coaching clients’ experiences show, the power of great listening extends beyond team members to other stakeholders: clients, partners, and peers. It seems that listening not only improves how others feel, how they think, and how they perform, it creates value for all stakeholders. By appreciating the importance of listening – crucial in our situations right now – we strengthen our ability to bring out the best in those we work with.
Thanks for listening.