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Listening, a vital managerial skill

The deepest listening often occurs in total silence, and with an open mind

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

We don’t listen well enough. Many managers like me speak well, read well, make grand presentations, try hard to lead from the front, and we also attempt a host of other good official deeds, for which we deserve due commendation. But sadly, we are poor listeners. Often, we may hear, but we don’t listen.

This is despite the fact that for most professions, over 75% of the work we do is based on listening to others. Imagine a marketer not listening to his customers, or an HR professional not listening to young managers, or a leader not listening to her team members. So, most people will agree that listening is a powerful and essential managerial skill. Unfortunately, it is not a skill that receives adequate focus, either in business schools or in organizations. Here are some simple suggestions on how we can listen better.

Keep quiet

We love hearing the sound of our own voice, so we don’t keep shut often enough. But if you have to listen carefully to someone else, you have to shut up. The deepest listening often occurs in total silence, where what you are hearing can be absorbed beautifully into your mind, without having to contend with the clutter of extraneous noise. I find that when I am tempted to speak out of turn, which is quite often, putting my finger on my lips is a good way to shut up. My primary-school teacher taught me that, many years ago.

Open your mind

To listen, you need an open mind. Often, when we hear something that goes against the grain of our existing belief, we tend not to listen any more, simply because we don’t wish to hear that we are wrong. Defences build up immediately in our mind, and then we are done. On the other hand, most new ideas emerge from something that is not aligned to existing knowledge. So the best way to listen is to keep your ears wide open for negative evidence—evidence that says you are wrong—and pay particular attention to why the speaker thinks that way. Don’t begin the process of evaluation until you have heard him/her out fully. An open mind does not guarantee you true enlightenment, but it certainly helps.

Put away your phone

Opening your mind during a meeting does not help if you have simultaneously also opened your mobile phone or laptop. When you are listening to your colleague speak, put away your digital devices, and watch the positive energy flow. WhatsApp and emails are the best way to plug your ears, and Facebook is not far behind. On the other hand, two or more people, face to face, discussing a topic without any digital distraction threatening to raise its head, makes for the best listening platform. A colleague of mine always places his bright red mobile phone right at the other corner of the room before he sits at any important meeting. He says it helps to keep temptation far away.

Forget the food

Our listening ability is, unfortunately, inversely correlated with our hunger and our abiding interest in food. As mealtime approaches, a few participants begin actively daydreaming about what could be on the menu for lunch or dinner, which is a recipe for delicious distraction from the subject at hand. But then we need to reckon with pangs of hunger, which are totally real, and yet find ways of remaining unmoved. I find that carrying a small hard boiled sweet in my pocket is a very helpful device. When hunger strikes, I pop the sweet into my mouth, roll it around my tongue, which helps me to continue listening intently, until the meal break.

Wait, then ask

Once you have listened well, and there is a natural pause in the speaker’s flow of conversation, it is a good idea then to ask questions that help bring clarity to your own thinking. Don’t hesitate to do this, because productive listening requires clarity. Sometimes, if you are listening to a colleague who has come to speak to you, you could even ask him to clarify exactly what he means, or really needs from you—this reassures both of you that you are thinking in the same direction. But unless there is some compelling urgency, such as an inter-galactic corporate shutdown within the next 5 minutes, don’t interrupt a speaker in the midst of her flow; that will spoil your own voyage of listening and also irritate everyone else.

Listen with all senses

If you need to listen really well, then non-verbal cues are as important as what is said. The best listeners carefully observe the speaker’s face and body language to understand what is really meant, including the subtext. This is quite an art, because you must know what to observe and it is never good to be caught staring. How something is said, and what is left unsaid, is equally important to pick out. Once, I heard and saw one of my team members become totally and instantly energized while speaking about a certain specific topic in consumer behaviour, and I knew instantly where his heart and mind lay. It helped me assign him to exactly the right project when the opportunity came up, and he is now a star performer there.

Leave useless meetings

There is no documented research yet on the number of totally useless meetings that each of us attends and listens in to. But the results of such a study would be quite revealing, I am sure. Once we are in a meeting or conversation, we generally tend to stay there and listen listlessly, until the session has concluded—even if we discover the subject to be a bore or quite irrelevant to our needs. Perhaps we do this as a matter of courtesy, or maybe because our boss is around, or even out of sheer inertia. Nothing could be more damaging. It is always preferable to stop listening and politely excuse yourself, which is acceptable in many such sessions, though not always.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. These are his personal views.

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