Enhance your listening skills and your management success

Listening is something that most managers believe they do well, but in fact, you may not be the good listener you think you are. If you improve your listening ability, you can greatly improve your management skills, as well as your career success.

Listening is harder than most people realize because it is an acquired skill just like reading or writing, according to Manny Steil, a listening expert and CEO of Communication Development, Inc., in St. Paul, MN. For IT managers, it is probably one of the most valuable skills to learn. No matter how technically adept, personable, and organized you are, without being able to listen to your bosses’ requests or your teams’ concerns, you won’t be an effective leader.

A case study of listening benefits
To help showcase the importance of listening and to prove how developing these skills can boost your company’s success, Steil, who is the founder of the International Listening Association and author of several books on the subject, offers this case study.

In 1979, Steil was working as a speech communications professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, when he and his colleagues were hired by Sperry Corp., one of the original mainframe manufacturers that later became Unisys. Sperry was trying to incorporate the theme of listening into its advertising campaign, and was hoping that Steil and his peers could provide some insight on the subject.

Instead, Steil suggested that, if listening was a corporate quality they wanted to convey to the public, the company’s staffers should first learn about listening themselves. Over the next five years, Steil helped train thousands of managers at the company, who then trained their employees. In the end, 44,000 Sperry workers learned the tenets of listening, which eventually became one of the reasons that they became such a business success.

Boning up on listening
When Steil works with clients, typically in a group setting over one or two days, he starts with a personal assessment tool to help participants understand their strengths and weaknesses as a listener.

Next, Steil teaches the fundamentals of listening concepts and discusses attitudes that get in the way of listening. Much of the workshop involves learning skills in four areas:
  • Sensing: Do you hear the words?
  • Interpretation: Do you understand the words?
  • Evaluation/judging: Do you accept or reject the words?
  • Responding: Do you take a final action that results from the conversation?

He also asks each participant to put together a chart of the 25 most significant people in their life, and categorize that list into a top-five list. Often, when examining this list, participants find that the most significant people in their lives are not the ones they listen to well. Making these connections is the first step on the road to becoming a good listener, he explained.

One of Steil's clients was a female VP, whose boss, the CEO, complained that she was a terrible listener. When she put together her top-25 chart she didn't include him in the list. When Steil highlighted the exclusion, everything became clear. She didn't listen to her boss because subconsciously she didn't consider him one of the most significant people in her circle—even though he was a major influence on her career. She decided to schedule regular, one-on-one meetings with her boss. Before long, the CEO was praising her progress and, later, promoted her twice.

How to be an active listener
The good news is that anyone can learn how to be an effective listener if he or she is willing to commit the time and energy. The first place listening breaks down is due to lack of attention—most people don't realize that there is a process to listening, and that process revolves around purpose, Steil said.

It is the listener’s responsibility to make sure that he or she understands the other party's purpose and that their mutual purposes are aligned. In other words, you may have to listen to someone else's small talk or venting—no matter how much you want to walk away—before you can get the information you want or need.

IT managers often don't feel like they have the time for small talk, which can be a big mistake. There is also the problem of selective listening: some people listen well on subjects close to their heart, but on other topics, they don’t hear a thing.

"In the tech world, a lot of people have attitudes that work against them," Steil said.

It's crucial that IT managers pay attention to emotions and distractions. Emotional triggers include people, topics, and language, Steil said. If a politician you loathe is on CNN discussing the war in Iraq, your feelings for the politician may override his or her message, which could be a valuable one. Conversely, you may respect a politician or have neutral feelings for him or her, but the topic of war is a negative one for you. As a result, your first reaction is to tune out.

Listeners must be able to filter those emotions and understand how they impact their ability to listen. Distractions include noise in the room, people walking in and out of the office, e-mails popping up on the screen, or a person’s own physical or emotional discomfort unrelated to the conversation.

"Good listeners identify and deal with [distractions] as best they can," Steil said. If anything might be unclear, added Steil, good listeners will take the time to ask or clarify.

Listening tips and resources
While there are plenty of books, tapes, and seminars available to help managers improve listening skills, there are also some simple questions you can ask to start the learning process:
  • Think about the role of listening in your life—how important is it?
  • How would you rate yourself as a listener?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses in listening?
  • Who are some listening role models in your life?
  • What can you learn from them?

In evaluating your listening aptitude, you should assess whether you have good or bad habits. One way is to determine if you are guilty of the traits listed in the book, Listen Up: How to Improve Relationships, Reduce Stress, and Be More Productive by Using the Power of Listening, by Larry Lee and Kittie Watson, which include:
  1. Interrupting the speaker.
  2. Not looking at the speaker.
  3. Rushing the speaker and making him or her feel that he or she is wasting the listener's time.
  4. Showing interest in something other than the conversation.
  5. Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing his or her thoughts.
  6. Not responding to the speaker's requests.
  7. Saying, "Yes, but...", which indicates partial disagreement before the speaker has completed his or her statement.
  8. Topping the speaker's story with "that reminds me..." or "that's nothing, let me tell you about..."
  9. Forgetting what was talked about previously.
  10. Asking too many questions about details.

Discovering how good or bad your listening skills really are is the first step toward improving this valuable managerial and communication skill. It will certainly help both your professional career and team management effort.