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Listening’s true value is what you’ve learned

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Cleaning out my desk is like going on a scavenger hunt: I never know what I’ll find. The last time around I was delighted to discover in the back of the drawer a magazine with an annual list of the 100 best places to work in the United States.

Teeming with juicy tidbits, it made for a great read over a steaming cup of tea. Ranking criteria included benefits and compensation, work from home and having a challenging and innovative environment.

What else made these businesses the best places to work? Here’s a hint: To make the list, these companies had to figure out what was important to employees and then provide it. In short, they had to listen to what workers had to say. Did you catch the key word here? It was “listen.” These were places where managers encouraged employees to contribute their ideas and opinions and then actually listened and acted on them.

For the effective manager, leader and employee aspiring to move up, listening is essential for success. Listening reaches its full potential when it’s paired with another L word — learning. Most people speak and listen at 125 to 150 words a minute, but think at a rate of 1,000 to 3,000 words a minute ( skills/statistics.html), so it’s no wonder that listening is such a challenge.

If you have bosses or colleagues who are outstanding listeners, you’ll notice that they are consistently pursuing three listening-focused outcomes: learning what they don’t know, learning what others need and learning what the best action is to take. Let’s look at each of these now.

• Learning what you don’t know. Countless business and personal interactions take place every day. Listening well during these encounters involves asking yourself: What did I learn from each information exchange? Was I passively participating or fully engaged? Because 75 percent of the time we’re distracted, yet 85 percent of what we know is learned from listening, the value of listening is at its highest when you pay attention and appreciate it as a means to gain deeper knowledge.

Want to go one better? An excellent listener is also popular. Think about it. People who listen to others are well liked because we all enjoy having someone take note of what we say. It’s no surprise that these listening basics hold true from classrooms to corporations and every personal and professional setting in between: The more you listen, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more open your mind and perspective will become.

Listen to find out what’s working, what’s not working, what new details, ideas and technologies are being generated, what glitches may be growing and what options should be considered.

While you’re gaining intellectual enrichment by paying attention and listening carefully, remember to encourage others to elaborate and hold back your urge to interrupt or criticize. With the proliferation of multitasking, texting, tweeting and emailing, distraction is a way of life and listening has become a lost art. Stop multi-doing and instead do yourself a favor and become a better listener.

What’s the first clue you’re a great listener? You walk away knowing more than when you walked in. Said American playwright Wilson Mizner: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something,”

• Learning what others need. Behind every challenge is an unfulfilled need. Exceptional listeners are tuned in to the desires of those around them, including employees, supervisors (managing up), peers, business partners, customers, family and friends.

When wants are not satisfied there is unrest in the air, and emotions and conflict may come into play. Managers who are terrific listeners and learning more than they knew before recognize that what they actively hear helps them better respond to others’ requests. This is most important when it comes to customers and bringing the right products to market, as well as developing solutions that resolve business and personal problems and help produce profits and harmony.

On average, we immediately recall only 50 percent of what we hear someone say. For this reason, intently listening further enables leaders to perceive what feelings and preferences are tied to demands and what requires executive involvement.

There’s a caveat to this, but you knew there would be. Here it is: Don’t jump to conclusions. Validate desires and emotions you think you are hearing and make sure you’re on the right track before producing a response. An added gain you receive as a listening-focused manager is that you’re showing you care about employees and the overall organization’s success — yup, another hallmark of a successful leader.

What is the second clue that you’re a great listener? You have a reputation for taking into account the wants of others, encouraging people to approach you with issues and empowering people to solve problems sooner than later.

Said John F. Smith, former CEO and president of General Motors: “We listened to what our customers wanted and acted on what they said. Good things happen when you pay attention.”

• Learning what actions to take. Assuming you are already a manager or leader who listens to gain knowledge and understand others’ requirements, you’ve already begun to produce positive momentum. You’re enabling a vibrant buzz, which helps those around you become engaged, enthusiastic and energized. With this energy comes an enlightened openness to actions that are requested and alternatives that are ripe for consideration.

After listening intently to a healthy helping of fresh possibilities, you’re ready to use your new wisdom to formulate actionable conclusions. Have you ever noticed that after you gather information and attentively listen to choices at hand, the top action to take begins to shine? This is listening at a premium level.

Executives who don’t pretend to know everything and don’t put on phony airs comprehend that first-class results are reached by listening and including the finest minds around them when confronting a conundrum. While they’re at it, they have the confidence to sit down and shut up when it’s appropriate.

What is the third clue that you’re a great listener? You listen to help leverage sharp minds around you to optimize decision-making and determine the brightest action to take for the greater good. Said Winston Churchill: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Being a leader who is a superb listener does not guarantee that your business will make the list of top places to work. I am certain, though, that companies on the list are consistently listening closely to employees’ and customers’ concerns and preferences. Executives at these organizations are learning what they don’t know, listening to needs and using that information to take actions that produce results.

They are taking the time and making the investment to upgrade their listening aptitude. Managers and leaders who listen relentlessly realize still more rewards: It makes them look confident and smart — because they are. After all, practicing great listening is one of the wisest decisions an executive can make. It’s likewise a choice that provides a powerful way to become more successful in every aspect of your personal and professional life.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.



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