The secret to being a good manager is listening

Karlien Vanderheyden

By Karlien Vanderheyden

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

07 May 2021

A 2019 readers’ survey by Intermediair identifies ‘a failure to listen properly’ as employees’ most common gripe with their boss. So why is listening such an important skill? Leadership can be defined as the art of motivating people to achieve a common goal. To be able to motivate your team, you need to understand them, know which tasks they enjoy and which they don't, and take their input into account. This kind of relationship can only be built if you truly listen to them. Listening is also the pathway to fresh insights and ideas, and can be the difference between a project succeeding or failing.


Why are we often bad listeners?

One problem is that we’re keen to offer help quickly, and start searching for solutions before we truly understand someone. We don’t allow the other person to finish what they’re trying to say, and like to share our comparable experiences. We’re too ready to interrupt people, instead of truly seeing things from their perspective.

What’s more, we are often too focused on ourselves or on other matters. We’re already thinking about how we want to react to our interlocutor, we’re distracted by our to-do list, and so on. This means that we only hear part of what we’re being told.

Moreover, we think more quickly than we talk. Our brains can process 300 words per minute, whilst an average person says 100 to 140 words per minute. This gives us the bandwidth to think about other things in the meantime.

And finally, we’re quick to interpret messages from people through the lens of our own experiences, knowledge and background. This means that we sometimes have a story ready in our head that doesn’t actually relate to the story that the other person is trying to tell us.

How can we truly listen?

1. Slow down
Slow down and stop thinking about your own responses that you want to give. You first need to show the other person that what they’re saying is important. Give your colleague or employee enough time to finish their story. Where necessary, allow space for silences; that’s no bad thing.

2. Pay attention
Show the other person that you’re truly listening by making eye contact, nodding or smiling. Also look at the person’s body language. What can you learn from their posture, expression and hands? All this information helps you to truly understand the other person.

3. Reflect
Briefly summarise or repeat what the other person has said, and ask if that’s correct. This allows you to avoid any misunderstandings. Reflection often feels more uncomfortable for the person doing it than for the person listening to it. People like to hear their own thoughts and feelings repeated back to them.

4. Ask open questions
To listen effectively, you need to start out with a curious mindset. Most of us think that if we know someone well, we know what’s going on in their head. The reality is that it’s impossible for us to know that. That’s why it’s useful to ask the other person for a more detailed explanation by using open questions (e.g. What happened after that? How did you feel when that happened?)

5. Banish your preconceptions
Listening is an act of empathy. You’re trying to see the world through the other person’s eyes, and you’re trying to understand the other person’s emotions. This won’t work if you’re already making a judgement while they are still speaking. All kinds of subtle non-verbal signals show the other person that you’ve already formed an opinion.

6. Listening as a ticket to free education
Everyone has already learned a great deal in their life, or has certain knowledge, experiences and ideas. You can unearth all these insights by being curious in every conversation, and having a genuine desire to learn from the other person.

A good example of truly listening is a marketing manager who is annoyed that a new product isn’t selling. She wants to have a discussion with the engineers who developed the product, because she believes that the product is not fulfilling customers’ needs. By listening attentively to the engineers, putting her own opinion to one side for a moment and asking a series of open questions, she comes to understand that the product is in fact perfect for the customers, but they are simply not aware of its existence and the benefits that it offers. The conclusion of the discussion: instead of changing the product itself, the communication strategy around it must be thoroughly reviewed and revised.

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Karlien Vanderheyden

Karlien Vanderheyden

Associate Professor