CT: There’s a Reason Why No One’s Reading Your Emails

“With the volume of email we all receive, you can’ afford to keep writing bad emails that get ignored or deleted. When you follow all of these steps, you will maximize the chances of your emails getting opened, read, and acted upon!” Below is a blog by Carson Tate:

There’s a Reason Why No One’s Reading Your Emails

Are people not reading your emails? It’s frustrating when people don’t respond to emails. Your coworkers may never get that important information about a project you’re working on, and your boss may never answer the urgent question you have. Why? They probably get so many emails every day that they choose to ignore some of them to save time. Some of your emails may even get deleted without your recipient ever reading the message.

How to Get People to Read Your Emails

You need to figure out a way to make your recipients want to read your emails. Here are some simple tips to maximize the likelihood of your recipients reading your emails and actually taking the action you want them to.

Proof Your Emails Before Hitting Send

Proofing an emailing usually takes just an extra minute of your time, so there’s really no excuse for not doing it. If you choose to send an email with little to no punctuation, poor grammar, or simple typos, it shows a lack of professionalism. You are conveying a lack of time and attention to your recipient. When they see your email, your recipient may wonder how much you actually care about them reading your email. If you can’t take the time to go back through your email and make sure it’s clear and correct, why should they bother to read that same message?

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors are distracting. They detract from the message you’re sending and, in some cases, confuse the reader. If you want to be an effective communicator, you should always read back through your emails and make any necessary adjustments before you hit send.

Be Brief, Succinct, and to the Point

Email was invented to communicate information instantly. It’s a time-saver. But when you send someone an email that’s pages and pages long, you’re taking advantage of that person’s time. Most of us are reading our emails on mobile devices now. All of the scrolling through tiny text makes it especially difficult to read lengthy emails. So if a person opens up an email you’ve sent and sees that you’ve written them a novel, they probably aren’t going to take the time to read through it. Your email will either get deleted or forgotten before it’s ever read. When you write an email, get to the post quickly. Don’t ramble about unrelated topics or unnecessary information. Figure out the point of your email and don’t stray far from it in your message.

If you really think that you can’t be concise with the email you’re sending, you’re not using the correct platform for your message. Remember that there are other ways to communicate. Just because email has become our go-to doesn’t mean it’s your only option. So if you sit down to write an email and find that you have a lot to say, don’t write the email. Instead pick up the phone or go talk to your recipient in person. You’ll save both of you time!

Make Your Subject Lines Reflect the Current Topic

Your email’s subject line is your recipient’s first impression of you. And it may be their last impression if you don’t grab their attention enough to make them open your email. One sure way to get a person to NOT read your email is by keeping a subject line in an old email conversation even if it doesn’t reflect the current topic. This is off-putting and lazy. For the most effective subject line possible, always include two things:

  1. What action you want the recipient to take
  2. The date by which this action needs to happen.

This information will clearly and accurately tell your recipient what your email is about, and that will make them more likely to open your emails in the future.

Send a Link to Access Attachments on a Shared Drive

Sending several attachments in an email is overwhelming and inconvenient. It takes up precious space in your recipient’s inbox, and they have to spend time going through each attachment and downloading them. Don’t overload your recipient’s inbox. Instead, when you have three or more attachments, send a link so your recipient can access the attachments on a shared drive. When your recipient opens your message, they’ll see one link instead of attachment after attachment after attachment. It’s much more convenient and shows your recipient you care.

Include the Project Name and Next Action Steps

Have you ever opened an email that has an attachment but no body text? How does it make you feel? You probably think that the sender is rude to not even acknowledge you in the email. You may also be confused about why you’re receiving that email and what the sender actually wants from you.

Remember this is you’re ever tempted to send an email without body text. It might save you a little time, but it’s lazy and confusing. Give your recipient context. Always include the name of the project the attachment pertains to and what the next action step for your recipient is in the body of your email. It shows the recipient that you’re a professional who cares about effective communication.

With the volume of email we all receive, you can’ afford to keep writing bad emails that get ignored or deleted. When you follow all of these steps, you will maximize the chances of your emails getting opened, read, and acted upon! Don’t continue writing poorly crafted emails that might confuse or irritate the recipient. Take action and write better emails.

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Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential

Recently, I came across some notes from a book I read in 2011 that I’d like to share — What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential by Robert S. Kaplan:

Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential

Vision and Priorities

In the press of day-to-day activities, leaders often fail to adequately communicate their vision to the organization, and in particular, they don’t communicate it in a way that helps their subordinates determine where to focus their own efforts.

  • Have you developed a clear vision for your enterprise?
  • Have you identified three to five key priorities to achieve that vision?
  • Do you actively communicate this vision, and associated key priorities, to your organization?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Write down, in three to four sentences, a clear vision for your enterprise or business unit.
  • List the three to five key priorities that are most critical to achieving this vision. These should be tasks that you must do extraordinarily well in order for you to succeed based on where you are positioned today
  • Ask yourself whether the vision (with priorities) is sufficiently clear and understandable. In addition, ask yourself whether you communicate the vision and priorities frequently enough that your key stakeholders (e.g., direct reports and employees) could repeat them back to you. Interview key employees to see whether they understand and can clearly rearticulate the vision and priorities.
  • Identify venues and occasions for the regular communication, reiteration, and discussion of the vision and priorities. Create opportunities for questions and
  • Assemble your executive team off-site to debate the vision and priorities. In particular, consider whether the vision and priorities still fit the competitive environment, changes in the world, and the needs of the business. Use the off-site to update your vision and priorities and to ensure buy-in on the part of your senior leadership team.

Managing Your Time

Leaders need to know how they’re spending their time. They also need to ensure that their time allocation (and that of their subordinates) matches their key priorities.

  • Do you know how you spend your time?
  • Does it match your key priorities?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Track your time for two weeks and break down the results into major categories.
  • Compare how this breakdown matches or is mismatched versus your three to five key priorities. Make a list of the matches and mismatches. Regarding the mismatches, write down those time allocations that are 2s and 35 and could therefore be performed by others-or should not be performed at all.
  • Create an action plan for dealing with the mismatches.

For example, commit to delegating those tasks that could just as easily be performed by someone else. Decide, in advance, to say no to certain time requests that do not fit your key priorities.

  • After a few months, repeat the preceding three steps. Assess whether you are doing a better job of spending your time on critical priorities.
  • Encourage your subordinates to perform these same steps.

 

Giving and Getting Feedback

 

Leaders often fail to coach employees in a direct and timely fashion and, instead, wait until the year-end review. This approach may lead to unpleasant surprises and can undermine effective professional development. Just as important, leaders need to cultivate subordinates who can give them advice and feedback during the year.

  • Do you coach and actively develop your key people?
  • Is your feedback specific, timely, and actionable?
  • Do you solicit actionable feedback from your key subordinates?
  • Do you cultivate advisers who are able to confront you with criticisms that you may not want to hear?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • For each of your direct reports, write down three to five specific strengths. In addition, write down at least two or three specific skills or tasks that you believe they could improve on in order to improve their performance and advance their careers. Allocate time to directly observing their performance, and discreetly make inquiries to gather information and insights in order to prepare this analysis.
  • Schedule time with each subordinate, at least six months in advance of the year-end review, to discuss your observations and identify specific action steps that could help them improve and address their developmental needs and opportunities.
  • Write down a realistic list of your own strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of at least five subordinates from whom you could solicit feedback regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Meet with each subordinate individually and explain that you need their help. In your meetings, make sure to ask them to give you advice regarding at least one or two tasks or skills they believe you could improve on. Thank them for their help.
  • Write down an action plan for addressing your own weaknesses and developmental needs. If you have a direct superior (or trusted peer), consider soliciting advice regarding your developmental needs and potential action steps. Depending on your situation and level in the organization, consider the option of hiring an outside coach.
  • Encourage each of your direct reports to follow these same steps regarding their direct reports and themselves.

Succession Planning and Delegation

When leaders fail to actively plan for succession, they do not delegate sufficiently and may become decision-making bottlenecks. Key employees may leave if they are not actively groomed and challenged.

  • Do you have a succession-planning process for key positions?
  • Have you identified potential successors for your job?
  • If not, what is stopping you?
  • Do you delegate sufficiently-
  • Have you become a decision-making bottleneck?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Create a succession-planning depth chart for your business unit or organization. This document should include at least two or three potential successors for your own position.
  • For each potential successor, write down their key development needs and specific actions you might take in order to develop their capabilities in relation to potential future positions. Work to develop and shape these specific development plans.
  • For those key tasks that you have committed to finding a way to delegate, begin matching those tasks with specific candidates on the depth chart. Make assignments.
  • Categorize delegated tasks in terms of their levels of importance to your enterprise. Based on this analysis, note which tasks need to be done at extremely high levels of quality, and which can be done at “sufficient” levels of quality. Ask whether you have calibrated your level of involvement to this categorization, and remember that “involvement” should often take the form of coaching the subordinate, rather than a direct intervention. Make a commitment to “picking your spots,” to ensure that your direct interventions (beyond coaching) are justified by an appropriately high level of task importance.
  • Ask your business unit leaders to perform this same exercise with regard to their direct reports.

Evaluation and Alignment

The world is constantly changing, and leaders need to be able to adapt their businesses accordingly.

  • Is the design of your company still aligned with your vision and priorities?
  • If you had to design the enterprise today with a clean sheet of paper, how would you change the people, key tasks, organizational structure, culture, and your leadership style?
  • Why haven’t you made these changes?
  • Have you pushed yourself and your organization to do this clean-sheet-of-paper exercise?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Identify a key business unit or function to tryout the clean-sheet-of-paper exercise. Create a small task force based on the selected names from the succession-planning depth chart exercise. Attempt to draw professionals from at least two to three different business units and/or functional areas. Give the team a specific assignment, and emphasize that they should assume that there are no sacred cows to be protected. Make clear to them that while you may not follow every piece of their advice, you want their candid views and most likely will implement at least some of their suggestions.
  • Agree on an appropriate time frame. Take into account that this assignment is not in place for doing their day jobs. Make clear that you are available to answer questions or give guidance, but you plan to stay away from this process in order to avoid influencing their analysis and conclusions.
  • Debrief the group regarding their findings. Also, conduct a post mortem to determine what you and the task force learned from the process of doing this exercise.
  • Develop a specific action plan for implementing at least some (if not all) of the group’s recommendations.

The Leader as Role Model

Your actions are closely observed by those around you. They send a powerful message about what you believe and what you truly value.

  • Do you act as a role model?
  • Do your behaviors match your words?
  • How do you conduct yourself under pressure?
  • Is your conduct consistent with your stated values?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Write down two or three key messages you believe you send with your behavior (versus your speeches). Seek advice from key subordinates and advisers who directly observe your behavior, in order to answer this question: is there a disconnect between the messages you wish to send and those you are in fact sending?
  • Do this same exercise for your key direct reports. What messages is each of them sending about what is truly valued in your organization? Again, make discreet inquiries, if necessary, to do this analysis. Incorporate this work into your coaching of these executives.
  • Think of a situation in which you felt enormous stress at work and regretted your behavior. Write down the one or two issues that created the stress you were feeling- acknowledging that these issues may have had nothing to do with work. How would you behave differently if you could replay this situation? Write down one or two lessons you take away from this exercise.

Reaching Your Potential

Successful executives develop leadership styles that fit the needs of their business but also fit their own beliefs and personality.

  • Are you pursuing a path that is consistent with your assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, and passions?
  • If not, what are you waiting for?
  • Have you developed your own style at work?
  • Do you speak up, express your opinions, and conduct yourself with confidence?
  • Do you encourage your people to be authentic and express their opinions?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Make a list of your three greatest strengths and your three greatest weaknesses. Get advice from your senior, peer, and junior coaches or advisers in order to make sure your list reflects “reality” in relation to your current job and aspirations.
  • Develop a specific action plan to work on your weaknesses. Action steps might include specific job assignments, seeking feedback within your organization, and/or getting an outside coach.
  • Encourage your subordinates to do this same analysis and action planning. Discuss these plans in your coaching sessions for subordinates.
  • Think of a situation in which you were at your best, when you performed extremely well and felt great about your impact. What were the elements of this situation? What tasks were you performing, what was your leadership approach, what was the context, and what other factors enhanced your performance? What lessons do you take from this, regarding your passions, values, and other key elements that help bring out your best performance?
  • Think of a time when you brought out the best in others. What was your motivational approach? What was your leadership style? What other elements allowed you to bring out the best in others? When you reflect on this situation, what lessons do you learn about yourself, including about your philosophy and values, as well as how you might best motivate others in the future?

12 Apps for a Better Life

The following applications and websites can be used to make your job and life better. These are just a few of the applications in the marketplace. I’ve used most of the services listed and may be contacted if you want more information.

Time Management

Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro Technique is a time management method. The technique uses a timer to break down work into an interval of 25 minutes then take short breaks. This method is based on the idea that a frequent break improves mental agility.

RescueTime

RescueTime is a time tracking application that gives you an accurate picture of how you spend your time on your devices. This application highlights poor usage of your time. It can also set alarms to tell you how much time you spent on Facebook.

Doodle

Doodle is a cloud-based calendar tool for coordinating meetings. Users are surveyed to determine the best date and time to meet.

Remember the Milk (RTM)

RTM is a cloud-based task and time management. Some of the features are emailing your task to RTM. Also, it can be used to setup tags, locations and integrates with Outlook and Gmail.

IQTell

IQTell is a cloud-based task and time management application. It utilizes the concepts and techniques designed in GTD by David Allen. This application will sync with emails, Evernote and ICloud.

Collaboration

Slack

Slack is a cloud-based team collaboration tool. Slack allows a team or group to communicate on one platform. This platform allows communication without email or group texting.

Dropbox

Dropbox is a file hosting service. Dropbox can be used as a collaboration of files with other users. It’s a good application for sharing large files or photos with others.

Organization

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping is a diagram used to visually organize information. This method is used in brainstorming, memory, visual thinking and problem solving. You can use paper or software to mind map.

IFTTT

IFTTT is a free web-based service that allows users to create chains of simple conditional statements, called “recipes”, which are triggered based on changes to other web services such as Gmail, Slack, Twitter, and Evernote. IFTTT is an abbreviation of “If This Then That”. Here are some of my recipes:

  • If new SMS received from [Phone Number], then post a message to a Slack channel.
  • Email me when the president signs a new law.
  • If the new final score for the Clemson Tigers, then send me an email at [Email].

Evernote

Evernote is an application that can be used to organize data and list by using notebooks and tags. The application allows users to create text, web pages, photographs, voice memos, or handwritten notes. Also, Evernote has a good search engine inside the application.

Trello

Trello is a cloud-based project management system. This uses boards (Projects) and cards (tasks). You can also set up teams for your projects.

Focus@Will

Focus@Will is a music based on human neuroscience. It helps you focus, reduce distractions maintaining your productivity, and retaining information when working, writing and reading. This is a paid subscriptions service, but other music services might offer Focus@Will playlists.

FOCUS: How Gritty Leaders Articulate Purpose

The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results by Eric Kaufmann is a quick and enjoyable read. He talks about four key questions to keep you on track: What am I creating? What am I avoiding? What am I sustaining? What am I yielding? Below is an excerpt from the book:

FOCUSFour Virtues.jpg

Purpose is the focusing element we need to understand and develop among the building blocks of grit. Grit is a forward-facing principle. Running away from something isn’t grit; it’s fear. While fear provides a strong motivation to keep running and moving, it drives you from behind as it pushes you along. Grit, on the other hand, magnetizes you toward a long-term objective. Clarity of purpose is a critical element for successfully developing and enhancing your grittiness; this can be something as broad as your life purpose, or a more narrowly defined sense of purpose for your work, team, or project.

Purpose draws from your focus, from your answer to “What am I creating?” In formulating your focus, you keep attention toward the horizon, and in so doing forward becomes obvious and easy to press toward. Leadership is a constant vigilance toward the future, toward what’s coming, as well as to the present, to what’s happening now. Long-term goals feed grit. We persevere when the future plays an active role in moment-to-moment decision making.

I’ve seen a common pattern among people who are most effective at remaining on purpose. I’ve coined the acronym FOCUS as a thinking guide that reflects how gritty leaders articulate purpose. FOCUS is a way to concentrate your efforts forward and bring forth the elements that empower grit:

F-Fulfilling. Is your goal fulfilling to you? How does this long-term goal feed your spirit? How does it make you a better person? Beyond the things that we have to do that we find challenging and difficult, how is this work feeding your soul? My job is challenging. It takes lots of attention and energy. Yet I grow and learn and make extremely rich and meaningful connections. I can press through the challenges because my work is fulfilling. My grit-my perseverance for striving to improve professionally-is fed by the fulfillment of being of service, of touching people’s lives in a meaningful way.

O-Optimistic. My daughter has a glass on her desk half filled with water. She keeps it there because she wants to be gritty, and gritty folks choose to look at the glass as half full. It’s difficult to be gritty when you’re pessimistic about your goal in particular or future in general. You can learn and practice optimism, and the optimistic aspect of FOCUS isn’t just looking at the world positively, but looking forward and being engaged by the future. Being focused on the goal means that you direct yourself toward it; being optimistic about your goal means that you look forward to it. It’s nearly impossible to persevere toward something that you dread.

C-Challenging. Believe it or not, if the purpose is too easy or too ordinary, we lose interest in it. It’s paradoxical that grit-stamina and determination in the face of difficulty-is activated by the very presence of challenge and difficulty. Being challenged has a stimulating and energizing effect when the goal is also fulfilling; you strengthen grit when you know that you’re working toward something fulfilling and challenging.

U-Urgent. To stay on track with your purpose, it has to entail a sense of urgency. Urgency keeps your intention top of mind and your attention focused. This might sound counterintuitive, as grit refers to passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Yet if the long-term goal has no sense of urgency, then it simply languishes in the “would-be-nice-someday” category. When urgency turns to stress, though, it actually consumes the ability to be gritty. What builds purpose for true grit is your continued attention to the urgency of the goal while maintaining a rational detachment from the strain and stress of the deadline.

S-Specific. The final component of FOCUS is that the goal is specific; it’s restricted. During strategic planning, I refer to strategy as the “art of exclusion.” Being specific means honing in on one defined outcome and ignoring the other possibilities and temptations. Losing weight through diet and exercise can take a while, often longer than we wish, and saying, “I want to lose weight” is fairly useless. But saying “I want to weigh 140 pounds” is specific. “Hiring good talent” is vague; “hiring three experienced trainers” is specific.

SMART Goals

The practice of goal-setting is helpful in the pursuit of happiness. Psychologists tell us that people who make consistent progress toward meaningful goals live happier, more satisfied lives.

If you don’t have written goals, I encourage you to make an appointment on your calendar to work on them. You can get a rough draft done in as little as an hour or two. Few things in life pay such rich dividends for such a modest investment.

A SMART goal is an acronym for achieving your commitments. Below are the five meanings:

  • Specific—Your goals must identify exactly what you want to accomplish in as much specificity as you can muster.
  • Measurable—If possible, try to quantify the result. You want to know absolutely, positively whether or not you hit the goal.
  • Actionable—Every goal should start with an action verb (accomplish, organize, increase, develop, budget, etc.) rather than a to-be verb (am, be, have, etc.)
  • Realistic—A good goal should stretch you, but you have to add a dose of common sense. Go right up to the edge of your comfort zone and then step over it.
  • Time-bound—Every goal needs a date associated with Make sure that every goal ends with a “by when” date.[1]

Your next steps are as follows:

  1. Write them down. This is critical. There is huge power in writing down your goals.
  2. Review them frequently. Writing your goals down makes them real but the key is to review them on a regular basis and break them down into actionable tasks.
  3. Share them selectively. Sharing them with those that are important to you and someone to whom you can be accountable.

[1] Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy, Living forward : a proven plan to stop drifting and get the life you want (Baker Books, 2016), 95

HBR: The 4 Leadership Styles, and How to Identify Yours

What is your leadership style? My leadership style is a Solution Finder. Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Bill Taylor.

The 4 Leadership Styles, and How to Identify Yours

We all want to be part of a great success story. To run, start, or play a senior role in a company that wins big or changes the course of its industry. To launch a brand that dazzles customers and dominates its markets. To be the kind of executive or entrepreneur who creates jobs, generates wealth, and builds an organization bursting with energy and creativity.

Which means that all of us, no matter where we are in our career, have to wrestle with the big questions of leadership: What is our personal definition of success? What does it mean to make a difference and have an impact? What is the best way to rally colleagues to our cause, to handle problems and obstacles that inevitably arise, to revise plans in the face of setbacks or to stand pat no matter the odds? How much do we rely on our own ideas and experiences, and how widely do we seek the advice and support of those around us? If we hope to succeed, we need to understand how we lead.

Over the last three decades — first as a young editor at Harvard Business Review, then as cofounder of Fast Company magazine, now as a book author — I’ve spent time with truly remarkable leaders in a vast range of fields. All of them have achieved tremendous success and impact, and none of them has done it in precisely the same way. But I’ve been able to identify four styles that capture their different approaches to the whys and hows of leadership, and I’ve come up with a set of 16 questions to help you figure out which style suits you best. There are no right answers to these questions, of course, no one way to lead. But each of us has to figure out which style of leadership fits who we are and what we are trying to achieve.

What are those four styles of leadership?

The Classic Entrepreneur. As legendary investor John Doerr likes to say, classic entrepreneurs do “more than anyone thinks possible with less than anyone thinks possible.” Leadership is about the thrill of competition and the quest for success. No-nonsense variables, such as costs, quality, profit margins, and savvy deals, are the metrics that matter. Sure, these leaders care about the values their company stands for, but it’s the dollars-and-cents value proposition that matters most. They love to build killer products and butt-kicking companies. They are, in Doerr’s words, and he doesn’t mean this critically, “opportunistic” — they revel in “the pitch” and “the deal.” When faced with decisions about launching a new product, or dealing with a disgruntled customer, or selling the company to an eager suitor, they focus on tough-minded calculations and no-nonsense financial returns.

The Modern Missionary. These leaders aim for more than mere business success; they aspire to success and significance. Winning is less about beating the competition than it is about building something original and meaningful. Success is less about making money than it is about making a difference and having an impact. Sure, economic value is important, but human values are what drive their passion to succeed. So these leaders may take risks that classic entrepreneurs won’t, even if the short-term returns aren’t obvious, or they may turn down deals that others might accept, because the financial payoffs aren’t as important as the broader impact they hope to make. These leaders don’t just want to run companies; they aim to turn their companies into a cause.

The Problem Solver. They worry less about dramatic impact than about concrete results. They believe in the power of expertise and the value of experience. Disruptive technologies and blank-sheet-of-paper business models may be reshaping markets and industries, but past success is a good predictor of future impact. So as they rise through the ranks or lead organizations they’ve built, problem solvers are the first to confront difficulties and identify new opportunities. Yes, they rely on the advice of colleagues, but ultimately they fall back on everything they’ve learned and seen to guide the organization into the future. These top-down, take-charge, the-buck-stops-here executives may be the most recognizable sorts of leaders, in terms of the image we carry around of what it takes to get things done.

The Solution Finder. This style is about incremental results and concrete solutions, but these leaders believe that the most powerful contributions often come from the most unexpected places — the hidden genius of their colleagues, the collective genius that surrounds their organization. They are committed to making sure that what they know doesn’t limit what they can imagine. They’re ultimately responsible for business results, but they believe that achieving those results is everybody’s business. These modest, humble, self-effacing leaders don’t make headlines, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious. They believe that humility in the service of ambition is the right mindset to do big things in a world of huge unknowns.

Why is it important to gain clarity about the leadership style that fits each of us best? Because the more we understand about ourselves — what we truly care about, how we make decisions, why we do what we do — the more effective we will be at marshaling the support of others for what we hope to achieve. In a time of wrenching disruptions and exhilarating advances, of unrelenting turmoil and unlimited promise, there have never been more roads to success — or more opportunities to fail.

Author’s note: I’ve created a 16-question quiz on my website to help you figure out your style. It’s free, but you do have to enter your email address to get your results.

 

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.