HBR: What Great Listeners Actually Do

Which level of listening would you like to aim for? Are you using all four qualities to listen? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.

What Great Listeners Actually Do

Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.

In our experience, most people think good listening comes down to doing three things:

  • Not talking when others are speaking
  • Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)
  • Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word

In fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things – encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…” However, recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills.

We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference. With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.

We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. We grouped them into four main findings:

  • Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.
  • Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive (or, for that matter, critical!). Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them. Good listening was characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
  • Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
  • Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. This finding somewhat surprised us, since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that “So-and-so didn’t listen, he just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” 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.)

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

Of course, there are different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater focus and listening skill. Consider which level of listening you’d like to aim for:

Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.

Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye-contact. (This behavior not only affects how you are perceived as the listener; it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.)

Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct.

Level 4: The listener observes nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals. It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It sounds strange to some, but you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.

Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathizes with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.

Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person. However, good listeners never highjack the conversation so that they or their issues become the subject of the discussion.

Each of the levels builds on the others; thus, if you’ve been criticized (for example) for offering solutions rather than listening, it may mean you need to attend to some of the other levels (such as clearing away distractions or empathizing) before your proffered suggestions can be appreciated.

We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far. Our hope is that this research will help by providing a new perspective on listening. We hope those who labor under an illusion of superiority about their listening skills will see where they really stand. We also hope the common perception that good listening is mainly about acting like an absorbent sponge will wane. Finally, we hope all will see that 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. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

 

Plant A Tree

Hope Jahren  in Lab Girl  gives us an awesome challenge to plant a tree. She includes an exercise on how to measure and chart the growth of a tree. Below is an excerpt from the book:

EpilogueLab Girl.jpg

PLANTS ARE NOT LIKE US. They are different in critical and fundamental ways. As I catalog the differences between plants and animals, the horizon stretches out before me faster than I can travel and forces me to acknowledge that perhaps I was destined to study plants for decades only in order to more fully appreciate that they are beings we can never truly understand. Only when we begin to grasp this deep otherness can we be sure we are no longer projecting ourselves onto plants. Finally we can begin to recognize what is actually happening.

Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine, and wood. In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not. Roads have grown like a manic fungus, and the endless miles of ditches that bracket these roads serve as hasty graves for perhaps millions of plant species extinguished in the name of progress. Planet Earth is nearly a Dr. Seuss book made real: every year since 1990 we have created more than eight billion new stumps. If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump. My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.

In languages across the globe, the adjective “green” is etymologically rooted in the verb “to grow.” In free-association studies, participants linked the word “green” to concepts of nature, restfulness, peace, and positivity. Research has shown how a brief glimpse of green significantly improved the creativity that people brought to bear on simple tasks. Viewed from space, our planet appears less green with each passing year. On my bad days, our global troubles seem only to have increased over my lifetime, and I can’t escape my greatest nagging fear: When we are gone, will we leave our heirs stranded in a pile of rubble, just as sick and hungry and war-exhausted as we ever were, bereft even of the homely comfort of the color green? But on my good days, I feel like I can do something about this.

Every single year, at least one tree is cut down in your name. Here’s my personal request to you: If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there. Throw in a bit about how exceptional he is for caring enough about the environment to have put it there. If he takes the bait, go plant another one. Baffle some chicken wire at its base and string a cheesy birdhouse around its tiny trunk to make it look permanent, then move out and hope for the best.

There are more than one thousand successful tree species for you to choose from, and that’s just for North America. You will be tempted to choose a fruit tree because they grow quickly and make beautiful flowers, but these species will break under moderate wind, even as adults. Shyster tree planting services will pressure you to buy a Bradford pear or two because they establish and flourish in one year; you’ll be happy with the result long enough for them to cash your check. Unfortunately, these trees are also notoriously weak in the crotch and will crack in half during the first big storm. You must choose with a clear head and open eyes. You are marrying this tree: choose a partner, not an ornament.

How about an oak? There are more than two hundred species and one is bound to be adapted to your specific corner of the planet. In New England, the pin oak thrives, its leaves tipping to a thorny point in a good-natured impression of its evergreen neighbor the holly bush. The turkey oak can grow practically submerged within the wet- lands of Mississippi, its leaves soft as a newborn’s skin. The live oak can grow sturdily on the hottest hills of central California, contrasting dark green against the golden grass. For my money, I’ll take the bur oak, the slowest-growing but the strongest of all; even its acorns are heavily armored, ready to do battle with the uninviting soil.

Speaking of money, you may not even need any: Several state and local agencies have embarked upon tree-planting programs, distributing seedlings for free or at a reduced cost. For example, the New York Restoration Project provides trees as part of its goal to help citizens plant and care for one million new trees across New York City’s five boroughs, while the Colorado State Forest Service provides access to its nurseries to any local landowner holding one or more acres. Every state university runs one or more large operations called Extension Units, full of experts qualified to give advice and encouragement to citizen gardeners, tree owners, and nature enthusiasts of all types. Call around: these researchers are obligated to provide free consultations to interested civilians regarding your trees, your compost heap, your out-of-control poison ivy.

Once your baby tree is in the ground, check it daily, because the first three years are critical. Remember that you are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world. If you do own the land that it is planted on, create a savings account and put five dollars in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty (and it will), you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down. Each time you blow the account on tree surgery, put your head down and start over, knowing that your tree is doing the same. The first ten years will be the most dynamic of your tree’s life; what kind of overlap will it make with your own? Take your children to the tree every six months and cut a horizontal chink into the bark to mark their height. Once your little ones have grown up and moved out and into the world, taking parts of your heart with them, you will have this tree as a living reminder of how they grew, a sympathetic being who has also been deeply marked by their long, rich passage through childhood.

While you’re at it, would you carve Bill’s name into your tree as well? He’s told me a hundred times over that he’ll never read this book because it would be pointless. He says that if he ever gets at all interested in himself he can damn well sit down and remember the last twenty years without any help from me. I don’t have a good comeback for that one, but I’d like to think that the many parts of Bill that I’ve released to the wind belong somewhere, and over the years we’ve learned that the best way to give something a home is to make it part of a tree. My name is carved into a bunch of our lab equipment, so why shouldn’t Bill’s name be carved into a bunch of trees?

At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a tree and it will have you. You can measure it monthly and chart your own growth curve. Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective. Stretch your imagination until it hurts: What is your tree trying to do? What does it wish for? What does it care about? Make a guess. Say it out loud. Tell your friend about your tree; tell your neighbor. Wonder if you are right. Go back the next day and reconsider. Take a photograph. Count the leaves. Guess again. Say it out loud. Write it down. Tell the guy at the coffee shop; tell your boss.

Go back the next day, and the next, and so on. Keep talking about it; keep sharing its unfolding story. Once people begin to roll their eyes and gently tell you that you’re crazy, laugh with gratification. When you’re a scientist, it means that you’re doing it right.

 

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport is a must read and one for your bookshelf. It helped me understand the difference between deep and shallow work. Below is an excerpt from the book:

Work like Teddy Roosevelt Deep work.jpg

 

If you attended Harvard College during the 1876-1877 school year, you would’ve likely noticed a wiry, mutton- chopped, brash, and impossibly energetic freshman named Theodore Roosevelt. If you then proceeded to befriend this young man, you would’ve soon noticed a paradox.

On the one hand, his attention might appear to be hopelessly scattered, spread over what one classmate called an “amazing array of interests”– a list that biographer Edmund Morris catalogs to contain boxing, wrestling, body building, dance lessons, poetry readings, and the continuation of a lifelong obsession with naturalism (Roosevelt’s landlord on Winthrop Street was not pleased with her young tenant’s tendency to dissect and stuff specimens in his rented room). This latter interest developed to the point that Roosevelt published his first book, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks, in the summer after his freshman year. It was well received in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club- a publication, needless to say, which takes bird books quite seriously-and was good enough to lead Morris to assess Roosevelt, at this young age, to be “one of the most knowledgeable young naturalists in the United States.”

To support this extracurricular exuberance Roosevelt had to severely restrict the time left available for what should have been his primary focus: his studies at Harvard. Morris used Roosevelt’s diary and letters from this period to estimate that the future president was spending no more than a quarter of the typical day studying. One might expect therefore that Roosevelt’s grades would crater. But they didn’t. He wasn’t the top student in his class, but he certainly didn’t struggle either: In his freshman year he earned honor grades in five out of his seven courses. The explanation for this Roosevelt paradox turns out to be his unique approach to tackling this schoolwork. Roosevelt would begin his scheduling by considering the eight hours from eight thirty a.m. to four thirty p.m. He would then remove the time spent in recitation and classes, his athletic training (which was once a day), and lunch. The fragments that remained were then considered time dedicated exclusively to studying. As noted, these fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”

This strategy asks you to inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline-for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity- no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Try this experiment no more than once a week at first- giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve-providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain. An additional benefit is that these dashes are incompatible with distraction {there’s no way you can give in to distraction and still make your deadlines). Therefore, every completed dash provides a session in which you’re potentially bored, and really want to seek more novel stimuli — but you resist. As argued in the previous strategy, the more you practice resisting such urges, the easier such resistance becomes.

After a few months of deploying this strategy, your understanding of what it means to focus will likely be transformed as you reach levels of intensity stronger than anything you’ve experienced before. And if you’re anything like a young Roosevelt, you can then repurpose the extra free time it generates toward the finer pleasures in life, like trying to impress the always-discerning members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

 

JMM: The Little Known Habit Of Productive Leaders

Are you scheduling time for yourself? Below is a blog from John Michael Morgan.

The Little Known Habit Of Productive Leaders

For the strongest leaders, this works like crazy. Yet very few people realize that the most productive leaders have this habit. The reason is because it’s counter to what you would typically think of a busy leader.

The truth is the most productive leaders are extremely disciplined with their personal time.

On the surface, it doesn’t always look this way. A leader is busy and typically doesn’t work a 9 to 5 schedule. But what they know that you don’t, is that they have to be fed too. If you’re not focused on self-care, you won’t be able to serve people for long. 

It’s the classic airplane scenario. I travel so much I feel like I could recite it verbatim. In case, of an emergency, put YOUR oxygen mask on first. Why? Because if you’re not okay, you can’t help anyone else.

This is true of leadership as much as it is anything in life.

If you want anything in your life to improve, you must improve. Think about it, income improvement follows self-improvement. Marriage improvement follows self-improvement. If you want your business to be better, you must be better.

That’s why the strongest and most productive leaders never stop working on themselves.

The challenge is that the more successful you are, the greater the demand on your personal time. Your time must be guarded and protected. Everyone expects you to be available when THEY need you. Your to-do list will never end. Beware falling into a cycle of never taking time for yourself.

You have at least a general idea of what recharges your batteries. For some, it’s reading an interesting book or watching a good movie. For you, it might be exercise or hanging out with friends. Regardless, you must protect this time just as you would an appointment with your best client.

How To Take Your Personal Time Back

Now that you understand the importance of taking care of yourself and protecting time for self-care, let’s talk about how to make this a habit.

– Don’t Leave Yourself For Last

I get it. You don’t want to let anyone down and you’re spending your days meeting everyone else’s demands. Stop it. If you leave caring for yourself until you’re finished with everything else on your schedule, you won’t have anything left. Start making yourself a priority.

– Schedule It & Honor It

I’m not the most rigid when it comes to my schedule. But one thing I’ve learned is that if I don’t schedule personal time, I won’t have any. Set appointments with yourself. Schedule time to read, workout, nap, or whatever. Then honor that time just as you would an important appointment. Don’t show up late. Don’t cancel. Respect yourself and this time.

– Make Personal Time A Priority

When setting your schedule for the week, don’t rely on extra time for yourself. If self-care isn’t a priority you purposefully set, it will never become one.

My friend and Achiever, Robbie Green has found reading to be a great use of his personal time. But he wanted accountability with this time. So he challenged himself to read 100 books this year and is sharing each book he reads publicly. This forces him to keep going in those moments when it would be easier to put everyone and everything first.

– Try Starting The Day Focused On You

Your morning routine is a great time to take care of yourself. Before the hustle of the day begins, you can read, meditate, or go for a run. I like starting the day this way because then if the day gets busy or I have a few challenges pop-up, I’ve already been disciplined with my personal time.

– Set Boundaries

This is the hardest to do yet the most productive. Don’t take phone calls and texts at night. Protect your personal time. My clients know that I’ll respond to them quickly when they need something, but they also respect my personal and family time. Because we have boundaries set, they don’t send me texts or phone calls that could wait until the next day.

Ultimately, you have to understand that you’re not being selfish when you take time for you. The stronger you are and the more you improve, the better you serve your family, team, clients, and those in your life that you care about.

 

HBR: How to Stop Worrying About Becoming Obsolete at Work

Are you learning new habits or unlearning old habits? How should you think to prevent obsolescence? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchek:

How to Stop Worrying About Becoming Obsolete at Work

In case you missed it, FOMO is now an official word in the English language. The “Fear of Missing Out” is now in the Oxford Dictionary, which has described it as the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Perhaps FOMO has become a contemporary problem because things are moving so much faster. But I believe there is a deeper fear — a fear of becoming obsolete. We’re afraid of being left out because we’re afraid of being left behind.

As individuals, we’re afraid of being left behind in our careers. A recent survey by Oxford Economics found employees’ top concern is that their position might change or become obsolete. Half believe their current skills won’t be needed in three years. And the fear has spread to the C-suite: a study by Adobe found that 40% of marketing executives feel the need to reinvent themselves but only 14% feel they know how.

As organizations, we’re afraid that our industries will be disrupted or that our companies are no longer competitive. Business leaders surveyed by IMD believe 40% of the incumbents in each industry will be displaced by digital disruption in the next five years.

Perhaps we should use a variation on FOMO when it comes to our companies and careers: FOBO, the Fear of Becoming Obsolete. The dictionary definition might be “anxiety that the world is changing so rapidly that your career and company will be left behind.”

There are good reasons to be concerned. The lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has decreased from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today. Gartner predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025. Productivity is rising but jobs and income haven’t kept up.

We’ve been through transformative change before, but the rate of change was much more gradual. A century ago, it took generations for the economy to transform from agriculture to industry. These days, a career or business strategy can become obsolete in a matter of years.

So what should you do to prevent obsolescence? It’s a trick question. You don’t fix FOBO by updating what you do. You first have to update how you think. If you change what you do without changing how you think, you will get more of the same. But change how you think, and you will naturally change what you do. So the real question is how should you think to prevent obsolescence?

In times of transformative change, it is not just our skills, tools, and practices that become obsolete. More fundamentally, our mental models become outdated, rendering them ineffective, misleading, or outright dangerous.

Mental models are the (largely unconscious) ways we make sense of the world around us. They determine what we see or don’t see and connect cause with effect. For example, the typical mental model for how to solve a problem has us looking for what to do instead of how to think.

Our mental models are like maps in a GPS that tell us how to reach our desired destination. When things are stable, we just punch in new coordinates to get where we need to go. But when the landscape changes, our mental maps become outdated. We find ourselves making wrong turns and getting lost or confused.

Unfortunately, we can’t update the maps in our heads as easily as the maps on our phones. These models are like mental habits. And habits don’t change overnight. Change requires both learning and unlearning. The process is less like a teenager learning to drive, and more like a tourist in London trying to drive on the opposite side of the road.

Research on habit design tells us that the key to learning any new behavior is setting the right triggers and taking small steps. The same principles apply to mental habits. Here are a few to get you started.

  1. When someone raises a problem, notice the tendency to immediately ask “What should we do?” Instead of that question, try asking “How should we think?” Are you trying to solve the problem with the same thinking that created it? Is someone describing a car and you’re thinking, “Oh, sounds like a horseless carriage”?
  2. When you’re organizing an activity, check that everyone is aligned in their thinking before getting everyone aligned in their action. Just because they are using the same words doesn’t mean they are using the same mental models. When someone says “brand,” do they mean your logo, reputation, or experience?
  3. When you read about a successful company, catch yourself merely seeking to imitate what they’re doing. Instead, look deeper into how they are thinking. The key to becoming the “Uber” of something is not creating another app-enabled delivery service but instead applying platform thinking.
  4. When you’re making decisions, beware relying on “best practices.” By definition, a best practice is a tool or approach derived from an old mental model. Instead, look for “next practices.” Deconstruct the thinking behind their success and apply the principles to your situation.

The Fear of Becoming Obsolete is both real and warranted. Fortunately, we are not destined to be digital dodos. It is not we who have become obsolete; it is our mental models. The dodo couldn’t learn to fly, but we can learn to shift our thinking and create new mental habits. With an update in our mental models, we can be more resilient, more relaxed, and more relevant. All of which gives more time for checking social media and ensuring we’re not missing out on anything.

 

Seventh Anniversary

This year has been a wonderful year for my blogs. Below are my top views for the year.

  1. HBR: 5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For
  2. This Is How I Work – Greg Branecky
  3. DTM: Stop Trying to Make Your Customers Smarter!
  4. What I learned about customer service from an American Golf employee!
  5. HHSB: The Physiology of Sales Calls
  6. When It Comes to Performance Management, Employees Want More, Not Less!
  7. Innovators: Leadership
  8. HBR: The Dirty Secret of Effective Sales Coaching
  9. HBR: What Makes Great Salespeople
  10. The 10 Commandments of Communication to Build Trust
  11. Book Review: What If?
  12. HBR: How to Spot Hidden Opportunities for Sales Growth
  13. The Adams Differential Method of Estimating

Thank you for your support over the past year.