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.



Thank You Versus the Power Thank You

Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone by Mark Goulstonis a good book for people who want to improve their listening skills. The book points out that in order to be an effective communicator one must understand the person they’re communicating with. Below is an excerpt from the book about the “Power Thank You.”

Just Listen by Mark Goulston

“Thank You” Versus the Power Thank You

I have wonderful kids, and they’re great about offering thanks when I do stuff for them. But Lauren’s note stood out because it wasn’t just a thank you-it was a Power Thank You.

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with simply saying “thanks” when someone helps you out. In fact, that’s usually the right thing to do. But if you stop there, your communication is merely transactional (you did something nice for me, so I’ll say something polite to you). It doesn’t touch the other person or strengthen the relationship between you.

. That’s why if you’re deeply grateful to someone who’s done an exceptional favor for you, you need to express that emotion by going beyond the plain words “thank you” and instead offer a Power Thank You. When you do this, your words will generate strong feelings of gratitude, respect, and affinity in the other person.

Here’s my favorite version of the Power Thank You. It was in- spired by Heidi Wall, filmmaker and co-founder of the Flash Forward Institute, and it has three parts:

Part 1: Thank the person for something specific that he or she did for you. (It can also be something the person refrained from doing that would have hurt you.)

Part 2: Acknowledge the effort it took for the person to help you by saying something like: “I know you didn’t have to do ___ “or “I know you went out of your way to do ____

Part 3: Tell the person the difference that his or her act personally made to you.

Here’s an example of the Power Thank You in action.


LARRY: Sure. What’s up?

DONNA: Nothing. I just wanted to take a minute to thank you for handling the Bennett account so well when I was out of the office for my emergency surgery.

LARRY: Hey, no problem. I was glad to help.

DONNA: Actually, I’m sure it did create some problems for you. I know you were counting on taking your kids to the soccer semi- finals and I heard from your coworkers that instead you spent the whole weekend in the office boning up on the details of the account. I don’t think many people would have rearranged their schedules so willingly-and I doubt that most people could carry off a meeting with Bennett as brilliantly as you did.

LARRY: Well, thanks. I was a little worried about it all, but I’m glad we pulled it off.

DONNA: Don’t kid yourself. You pulled it off. You made both of us look good, and you made a big score for the whole department. I’m very grateful, and so is the rest of the team.

Donna could have simply said “thanks” in this situation, and that’s what most managers would do. If she had, however, Larry- although he’s an awfully nice guy-would have felt a little cheated. Why? If a person performs an extraordinary act of kindness or assistance and all you say is “thanks,” you create a mirror neuron receptor gap (more about this in Chapter 2) because emotionally you’re not giving back as much as you received. Saying “thanks” is better than nothing, but it’s not good enough.

Donna’s Power Thank You, however, made Larry feel totally mirrored. She didn’t just express appreciation; she also acknowledged Larry’s kindness, intelligence, commitment, and willingness to make a sacrifice to help other people. As a result, she strengthened her bond with Larry and gave him even more incentive to come through in tough situations.

Notice, too, that the Power Thank You doesn’t just make the other person look good. It also makes you look good to everyone involved by showing that you have empathy and humility and that you care. It also shows that you can be trusted to give credit where it’s due-something that can win you important allies in a corporate world where people too often get burned by disloyalty

To make this an even more effective approach, offer your Power Thank You in a group setting if you can. The larger the audience for your words, the more striking their effect will be.

Five Ways to Create More Value

Are you creating more value for your customers? Below is a blog post: Small Business Marketing Blog from Duct Tape Marketing.

5 Ways to Create More Value

by John Jantsch

Customer Value

Value exchanged for payment constitutes the most basic aspect of business. It’s why a business exists, how a business survives and why it continues to innovate.

Value, however is not what the business says it is, it’s what the buyer says it is by their willingness to purchase from one business over another and their willingness to meet the price asked by the seller.

Businesses that truly appreciate this understand that one of their primary jobs is to increase value in an attempt to sell more at higher prices.

One way to increase value is to stuff more features into your products and services in an effort to make them seem better than what others have to offer, but the problem with that approach alone is that it’s so easy to copy.

A far better long-term approach is to do the things that make your brand worth more in the market. To be the one that people talk about most.

You do this by committing to creating more value in the lives of your customers through tangible and intangible acts that allow you to build deeper relationships. This is how you build value that can’t be mimicked. This is how you build a brand that attracts customers that expect to pay a premium. This is how you create more value.


The first way to create more value is to understand the value you already deliver. So often we blissfully go about creating happy customers and doing as promised, without stopping to measure what exactly our client realized from our product or engagement.

The funny thing is, more often than not, they got more than we promised, received value that far exceeded what we felt was a reasonable fee. When you create some form of results review you can start to make real assessments about value and communicate these results as proof over promise.

One of two things should happen when you get serious about measuring value: You’ll discover you are not charging nearly enough or you’ll discover your clients are not getting nearly enough – either way you’ll have the information to confidently readjust your business based on value.


One of the most potent ways you add value is to lead. Your clients are quite often looking for someone to offer them direction. Take a stand and declare a point of view about your industry that you consistently support and become a leading voice for your point of view. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone, leaders take a stand, welcome all points of view and defend what they believe – and that’s where the value is created.

Create groups in social media for those that are attracted to your point of view. Write article, make presentations, blog and invite others, including your competitors, to share their views.

This kind of thought leadership is how you establish more value for your brand, but it’s also how you build a community that wants to be a part of something more dynamic than the typical me too players in your industry.


If you’ve learned how to something well, one of the best things you can do for your own growth, and those that follow you, is to teach others how to do it well.

This idea certainly applies to the natural elements of your business offerings, but where the real magic happens is when you expand this concept beyond what anyone would logically expect from your business.

For example, if you sell plumbing supplies, but you’ve figured out how to get a lot of value from your Facebook page, take the time to teach your customers how to do the same.

Bring in experts in every area of your customer’s life and make them available as part of what your brand stands for.


Many people draw inspiration from art and creativity. One of the best ways to inspire and differentiate your business is by investing in and caring about great design.

Spend the time, effort, thoughtfulness and, yes, money to get design that inspires.

This is a tricky one because design that inspires is so relative, but know this, great design in your marketing materials, websites, products, packaging, even your invoices, is one of the easiest ways to stand out and differentiate your business. It is an investment that will return many times over.

It’s hard sometimes to convince people that design adds value, but all you need do is look around at most industry leaders in every category to find examples where great design is the leading difference.


I’ll end with another not so intuitive way to add value – listen to what you customers care about.

I know that seems pretty obvious, but we rarely do it.

Invest in the tools that allow you to monitor everything your customers are saying publicly in social media and invest the time to ask them what they need in face-to-face settings.

When you sit with someone and ask them something meaningful about their life, you shut off your phone, look into their eyes and really focus on and care about what they are telling you – you add value. Nobody listens much anymore and people know when they are being heard.

Doing this in the manner I’ve just described is harder than it sounds, but it’s how you fill your relationships with confidence and that’s a kind of value that people cherish most.

Listen Up! 10 Great Tips for Better Listening

Below is another post from WorkAwesome.

Listen Up! 10 Great Tips for Better Listening.

by Radu Tyrsina on 3/8/11

“I like to listen. I have learnt a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”  – Ernest Hemingway

Whenever I am in the middle of a discussion, I try not to talk too much and always listen to the person conversing with me. But sometimes all of those words wind up transforming into a garbled mess. At that point, I realize I’m actually impatiently waiting for the other person to stop talking. That way I can start talking again, feeling that I’ve got all eyes on me. Not a good practice, but it happens to the best of us.

In recent studies by Dr. Ralph Nichols, he mentions that almost 40% of the day is spent on listening to others. What amazes me is that the efficiency of listening to what we hear is only at somewhere around 25% — and I’m not talking about the physical comprehension. Is your boss giving you some tasks and you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of asking again what the exact steps were? Do you sometimes find it hard to listen to people that you really don’t care for all that much?

As with many other skill sets, in order to become efficient and effective at listening you need to train yourself to do so. Here are 12 tips that will put you on the road to better listening.

1. Find common subjects and try to stick to them as much as possible.

If you take a positive stance towards a specific subject, you will find that in most cases there is enough information to enrich your knowledge. No matter how sterile the conversation may be, you can still get some valuable information from it. Try to exclude personal elements in these subjects, as this is counterproductive to efficient listening. For example, if you love basketball and the person you are engaged in conversation with is passionately talking about soccer, you will likely find yourself wanting to end the conversation (or leave the room altogether). Try to exclude your personal preferences and be as positive as you can when someone is talking about something that you can tell they are interested in. Look at your conversation as a way to educate yourself — even if it is something you don’t necessarily like. Who knows…you may even change your mind about your feelings on the subject matter by the time the conversation is through.

2. Take the initiative.

What’s the person speaking to you saying? Look at him and focus on his words. Don’t be afraid to make eye contact. Put your effort into making the discussion a “two-way street.” If looking directly into the speaker’s eyes (or even the speaker’s personality) are distracting you, try to focus just on the message he’s pointing out. Make him feel that he is being listened to. Show your attention and use words and expressions like:

“I see.”


”Hmmm, interesting…”

“Sounds great!”


Make sure to be as honest as you can when responding to the person you’re conversing with; a lack of authenticity can often be sensed if you’re not being forthright.

3. Exercise your ears.

Prior to having a conversation, try to rehearse it in your mind. If the person you’re going to be conversing with is someone you know, try to remember what he likes to talk about and get in the right mood to listen. Remember, once you show people that you can listen them, they will listen in return. Efficient and effective listening requires a lot of energy, and practicing facilitates the success.

4. Focus your attention on the main ideas.

Follow the general points that the person is trying to express. In some cases, you will see that people have a way of building their ideas with specific models, such as:

Starting with a little introduction speech

Listing out reasons and motives

Examples and illustrations (which end with a conclusion and a call to action).

Try to identify the main ideas from the rest and focus on that. Don’t pay too much attention on details as that can get you away from the discussion topic — and they are more difficult to remember.

5. Take notes.

Do not be afraid to do this. Doing this will show the speaker that you have a real interest in his subject. If you feel that the discussion is really adding value to what you know, then keep with you a small notepad and a pen. It’s best not to write during key moments of the conversation. Instead, take short and punchy notes. Later on, you can read them and analyze the information. With some practice, you will be able to get rid of the writing tools and be able to better use your mind to take mental notes instead.

6. Don’t pay attention to outside elements.

Try to “close” your senses to the outside world — even for a minute or two. Show the speaking person that you really care about his words. If you’re uncomfortable standing, choose a more intimate spot for the two to you to sit down and discuss things. You will still be aware of the outside noise, but you will not pay attention. This is a wonderful technique that you can use not only for listening, but also when you are trying to learn something or simply want to meditate.

7. Avoid contradiction while the speaker is speaking, but be genuine.

This is perhaps the biggest obstacle in becoming a better listener. Don’t be affected by any words with an emotional charge. Teach yourself to recognize those words and expressions and think about why those particular words are affecting you. Then try to shift your point of view to align with the person speaking. Think more about his reason of using these words and be as open-minded as you can. Don’t let past frustrations within break out during the conversation. Once the speaker is done with his point of view, then take the time to speak your mind in a genuine and calm manner. Everybody appreciates sincere speakers, but more so if they are conscientious in their tone when they speak.

A quick and premature disagreement with the other person’s words can lead to a “blind spot” inside your interaction. Having an open mind will allow you to follow the real essence of the communication and not just some particular aspects that may cause friction. Avoid a critical stand and don’t write off the other person’s words as incorrect. However, if you strongly disagree with what he’s saying, don’t use aggressive words to make your point known. Start your arguments with phrases like:

“I understand what you’re saying, but I think that …”

“In my humble opinion…”

“Don’t you think that …”

Evaluate the communication message, not the person or the way he used to express it. We are not are not all the same. Listen and analyze before judging. Receiving the actual message is far more important than the person’s delivery of the message. Be aware of the mood, personality or tone of your conversation, but don’t let these things interfere with the reception of the message, as that is the most important part. Understand that there are many people who can’t properly express their feelings and can’t find the right channel for their message.

8. Be present.

I’ve mentioned the word “focus” several times so far. You should know that you need to focus also on the present, not in the past or future. Being “less than present” can open up unwanted discussion. Keep in mind your speaker’s words and try to place them in the present. Anything less can render the conversation meaningless for both yourself and the person you’re speaking with.

9. Analyze non-verbal communication.

Look for facial expressions and the way your partner is using body language. Joe Navarro’s research in body language has shown that almost 60% of communication is non-verbal. So, you need to “read between the lines” every time there’s an emotional approach to a topic. That way you’ll know what subjects to avoid and when to dig even deeper into a conversation.

10. Practice.

Repeat all the above tips whenever you are engaged in conversation. If you feel you’ve acquired some skills, try to approach new people and even people that seem difficult to speak with. This regular practice can do wonders for you. Becoming an efficient and effective listener isn’t easy, but once you start to make progress you’ll find that you get access to new information in one of the easiest way possible: by lending an ear.

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