Standard listening skills “falling short”

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While being a great public speaker is undoubtedly an important aspect of personal and professional success, it’s important to remember that communication is not a one-way street. If you want to talk with people instead of at them, being a good listener is an absolute must.
But how many of us really know how to listen? According to the Harvard Business Review, although many of us think we’re above average listeners, we might have a thing or two to learn about what effective listening really sounds like.
“Active” listening is no effective listening
If asked what effective listening entails, chances are you’d come up with the same answers as Forbes — staying quiet while others are speaking, indicating interest via non-verbal (or non-disruptive) cues, and demonstrating understanding through repetition rather than trying to impose your own solution.
According to Harvard Business Review contributors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, however, this kind of thinking falls “short of describing good listening skills.”
In their study of almost 3,500 participants, they asked subjects to identify the best listeners among their peers, and noted qualities that the top 5 per cent of participants shared. The results were surprising — the characteristics of a good listener did not fit the mould found in most management guides.
Participate through the trampoline method
Despite what you might have been taught, being a great listener requires much more than staying quiet while someone else speaks. According to Zenger and Folkman, great listeners are less like sponges (absorbing information), and more like trampolines (bouncing information back).
In other words, rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, great listeners amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. By participating rather than listening passively, these people elevate the thoughts of whoever is talking, allowing them to “gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”
How can you become a great listener? The first step, as Mental Floss points out, is to gently ask questions — not only to clarify, but to probe deeper in the conversation. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, making constructive suggestions and giving feedback are always trademarks of a good listener; not only are you absorbing what the other person is saying, you’re pushing them to expand their thinking in the process.
Find common ground
Additionally, as Zenger and Folkman point out, you won’t feel listened to unless you feel supported. Passively nodding your head to someone’s comments won’t achieve this — it is only by actively supporting them and making them feel valued that they will truly feel heard.
One of the biggest problems with “active” listening is that the listener will often be more combative than cooperative, concentrating on the points they can refute rather than the points they can agree with and elaborate on. By honing in on contentious topics, they’re inciting debate rather than promoting discourse. By searching for common ground and playing to the speaker’s strengths, great listeners get the most out of — and bring the most to — the conversation.
Better listening means better leadership
So why should you be a better listener? Whether you’re a CEO, a temp, or a stay-at-home parent, being a better listener can benefit you and those around you. As any expert on communication will tell you, a successful conversation isn’t about competing — it’s about amplifying the best of everyone’s ideas, making everyone feel supported, and, in doing so, maximizing creative thinking both personally and in the workplace.
Ken Sterling is the Chief Marketing Officer at BigSpeak Speakers’ bureau – the leading keynote and business speakers bureau in the world.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and an MBA from Babson College. Ken teaches Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Strategy at UC Santa Barbara. He is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, business consultant and sales & marketing expert. For press interviews, contact
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