When Is Listening Not a Good Strategy?

Posted on Mar 9 2014 - 12:06am by IBC News
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Like a good case debate, the discussion of the question of whether listening is a lost art was not one-sided. What was clear was how important people felt listening is to effective leadership.

As Shari Morwood put it, “It starts at the top-if we as management don’t listen or don’t know how, we can’t tap the full power of the amazing talent in our own organizations. Listening is learning.” Rosa Urtubi added that “listening is assuming the responsibility, generosity to do something with whatever you hear. After all it is someone’s gift to you.” Wendy Zito believes that “when you feel you are being listened to then it helps you connect to the other person but it also helps you hear yourself.”

Gael raised the question to a more universal level with her comment: “Listening to oneself requires sometimes crude and painful honesty that most people feel they can’t afford.” That is why, she continued, it is so important to have real friends with good memory who can be our sounding boards. “Listening to others works better if you can show empathy and put yourself in the other peoples’ shoes.”

Several argued that the skill of listening is on the wane. “I fear that social networks may make the problem worse,” commented Gamaliel Pascual. “The technology may be hardwiring a younger generation to create virtual tribes where the congregation is based on shared biases/values.”

Allan Torng said, “Society has become too focused on looking for ‘positive responses’ … instead of finding out how we can do things better by listening and responding to ‘negative responses.'”

Others were not so sure. Tema Frank said she is not convinced that our ability to listen is any worse than it has been in the past. “The problem is that most people are terrible listeners, and we are all so time pressed that we are reluctant to take the time that is required to really listen to others.” Dennis Nelson added: “The art of communication, which includes listening, has always been a problem. What is different is that the impact of miscommunications becomes more apparent more quickly in today’s knowledge and highly interactive society….”

KB raised an interesting point with this question: “How many times (do) you have an answer as soon as you heard the main topic, suddenly your mind stopped listening and started developing your argument?” A discussion leadership strategy at Harvard Business School is based on this assumption: It is that a discussion leader should avoid calling on students whose hands have been in the air for several minutes. The assumption, which is nearly always borne out, is that they will bring the discussion back to where it was when they raised their hand, the point at which they stopped listening to what was being said by other students.

Others posed counter-questions that are important to consider as well. For example, Aim suggested, “I think the right question here is, what makes people think not listening is OK? … Or even better, are there any situations that would require you to not listen deliberately?” Wayne Brewer provided one response to that one when he said, “Maybe companies (and individuals) are figuring out that listening to customers is not as profitable as other forms of interaction. There is at least one book that points out the counter-intuitive relationship between success and listening to customers: The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Whether or not that is an accurate representation of Clay Christensen’s book, it raises another interesting question: When is listening not a good strategy? What do you think?